When Minnesota educators gather at RiverCentre Thursday to kick off the annual two-day conference colloquially referred to as the MEAs, they will hear for the 10th year in a row from Walter Roberts Jr., a nationally recognized expert on bullying and a professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University Mankato.
Education Minnesota has lined up a number of other panels on school climate, sexual orientation and gender identify issues and cultural competency, so Roberts’ won’t be a lone voice.
Still, it has to rankle — not that Roberts would ever say as much — that in this, his 10th year of ringing an alarm bell, the tragic results of unchecked bullying have never been more visible.
The good news is that he has lots of tools to hand to the teachers in attendance. The bad news: It sounds as if the people who really need to hear his message work a couple of miles up the street at the state Capitol.
Roberts took a little time off of polishing his presentation last week to preview it for MinnPost. An edited version of that conversation follows:
MinnPost: What do you plan to tell teachers Thursday?
Walter Roberts Jr.: The basic message is that adults have to recognize their part in helping to break this cycle of aggression that is ongoing in our schools. Part of what I have focused on the last couple of years is the fact that we need to call this behavior what it is: a cycle of aggression directed toward kids who are vulnerable inside school settings.
The reality is that this is a problem that extends far beyond schools. This is a problem that extends into the home, it extends into the greater community, it extends into society. Unfortunately — and I really want to stress this — unfortunately, because schools are the catch basin for where kids collect for a large part of the day, schools end up having to deal with the problem.
MP: What’s the resistance on the part of schools and others to calling it bullying? Why do our lawmakers and our schools like to soft-pedal this one?
WR: I’m beginning to wonder if the state of Minnesota has the will to truly address the issue. I understand the reluctance on the part of policymakers to interfere with local control of schools and school policymaking. Yet it’s clear that what we have been doing is not necessarily working.
I have a real problem when kids begin to harm themselves and harm others in relationship to bullying behaviors. I have a real moral and a professional question as to, what is it that we don’t understand? What is it that we adults don’t get? What is it that we don’t understand about kids feeling so frustrated that they feel as if their only answers are to harm themselves or harm other kids, in an effort to protect themselves?
It’s a very complicated issue, and it becomes more complicated whenever adults drag their feet and refuse to respond adequately when the kids are sending us these very, very strong messages that they need help.
MP: Do you find the same resistance on the part of the classroom teacher?
WR: Classroom teachers are faced with tremendous responsibilities on so many different fronts that the issue of bullying and dealing with aggressive behaviors among kids gets pushed to the bottom of the priority pile. And I understand that. Teachers are overburdened, they’re overtaxed in terms of the responsibilities that they have. Classes are overcrowded.
Part of the issue is educators in general oftentimes don’t understand the important role that they play in helping to break up the cycle of violence. Again, let’s call it what it is: a cycle of violence between an aggressor and a target. I think they don’t understand the importance of breaking that cycle.
It’s particularly problematic when there are mixed messages coming from a school district in terms of how involved teachers should be with regard to the way that some students are treated.
MP: What’s the single most valuable tool you can hand an educator?
WR: Presence, awareness of how kids interact, a willingness to stop misbehaviors when they’re seen. Breaking this cycle oftentimes is just a matter of being watchful, whether it’s kids on the playground, whether it’s the awareness of interactions among kids in the classroom.
Oftentimes an adult literally has to say to kids, “That behavior is not acceptable, we don’t do that here, this is a safe environment and we’re not going to tolerate that kind of behavior.”
Here’s what typically happens. A school district or a school will do something, hold a workshop, bring in a speaker. They’ll do something to make teachers more aware, or they’ll do something to sensitize kids about their behavior. A one-shot kind of thing, and after it’s over, everybody goes back to the same old behaviors or the same old way of dealing with the issues.
It’s not enough. It has to be constant. It has to be a culture. There literally has to be a culture of civility and an environment of safety within schools so everyone feels safe. So teachers can speak up whenever they know that there’s a problem that needs to be addressed. Kids need to feel safe, too, bringing issues to significant adults in the building.
This is clearly something that we have to address in terms of kids learning how to be civil with one another, and learn how to manage and solve their own problems. We can’t follow kids around 24-7, and that’s not what our job is.
But we do have a responsibility to help kids make good, solid, sound decisions about what is appropriate and inappropriate. What are the limits of a child’s ability to interact with another individual without crossing that line of aggression?
MP: Relational aggression seems to live right there on the genome, and can start so early: “You’re in the club, you can’t be in the club anymore.”
WR: Part of the problem we’re having today is the incivility that is being role-modeled in greater society. Kids are exposed constantly to models of incivility and misbehavior by virtue of what we call reality television. The message kids get is, “If you’re stronger, if you’re louder, if you’re meaner, if you’re crueler, then you win, you get your way.”
So what do they do? They take those behaviors and they bring them into the school environment. They bring them into their interactions with their peers, because school’s become a testing ground, a Petri dish, of behavioral experimentation among kids. That’s a natural aspect of normal developmental behavior among kids.
I’ll be real honest with you. I am concerned that we’re losing traction on our ability to address some of these issues. I’m going to be specific to Minnesota in this instance: The longer we dawdle, the longer we make excuses to not intervene and act effectively on many of these issues, the more it just encourages the behaviors to snowball and gain strength.
MP: Would legislation either at the state or the federal level assist schools?
WR: It’s a start. Policymakers, by virtue of their failure to be proactive send a message. It sends a message to parents, to school boards, to kids, that basically everybody’s kind of on their own.
Minnesota is truly struggling, looking for some direction. Right now, the loudest voices are directed toward no policy. We really have to take a hard look at what other states are doing, and which states are having greater success dealing with the issue.
Policy, in and of itself, is nothing more than words on a piece of paper. The real solution is practice.
MP: One of the things we know about schools that do really well academically with high poverty concentrations is that they have very strong, distinctive cultures. And a lot of them are charters, but some form those cultures do it in reaction to an internal crisis.
I’ve read, for instance, about a Greater Chicago Area school that had a spate of suicides that turned into a galvanizing event that not only, I think, helped to resolve the issue at root there, but turned into a real strong achievement-oriented culture.
WR: Here’s what came to mind when you said that. Some schools have greater success because the ratio of adults to kids is at more manageable levels. The children feel as if they matter, because the adults in the school know them, know about their issues. They speak to them at a human level. The kids don’t get the message that the only reason that they’re there is to take tests.
A part of that is creating a culture of humaneness, of civility within the school. That creates a higher sense of safety for the kids. You can’t foster creativity where people don’t feel safe. We know that where kids don’t feel safe they don’t perform as well academically.
We’ve known this for quite some time. It’s just because of high profile instances where kids have harmed themselves or others that we really have begun to say, “Gee, maybe we need to do something.” The anecdotal evidence has been in front of our faces all along.
The reality is that our kids have the same problems here that they have in other places, and we are not addressing it appropriately. We’ve got to get a handle on it.