Division outlines anti-bullying efforts

Published 8:47 pm Monday, November 15, 2021

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Though the vast majority of Suffolk Public Schools students surveyed indicated that they had never been bullied either in person or online, about half agreed that cyberbullying was a problem and more than half indicated in-person bullying was a problem at their school.

The October survey of 5,156 SPS students from grades 3 through 12 came in the wake of public comments at the School Board’s meeting last month discussing bullying behavior at multiple division schools.

Among the findings:

  • 84% indicated they had never experienced being teased or having rumors being spread about them online from someone at school.
  • 93% indicated never having unpleasant comments, pictures or videos posted online.
  • 78% indicated they did not know a victim of cyberbullying.
  • 49% indicated they had witnessed another student get teased, called names, pushed or hit while at school, with 46% indicating they tried to help or find help.
  • 81% indicated they never missed school because of feeling unsafe.
  • 93% indicated they had been taught how to keep themselves safe online.
  • 73% indicated there is an adult at school they feel comfortable talking to.
  • 49% agreed that cyberbullying is a problem at school.
  • 56% agreed that in-person bullying is a problem at school.

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Supervisor of School Counselors Angela King and Supervisor of Social and Emotional Support Cynthia Devers discussed the findings with the School Board during its Nov. 4 meeting.

King outlined bullying and cyberbullying as “repeated, unwanted aggressive behavior towards someone and hurting that someone on purpose.”

The bullying behavior, according to King, “can be social, such as purposefully outing another student. It can be verbal, such as continually calling another names. It can be physical, such as hitting someone with intent, or it can be cyber, such as creating harmful memes about another person.”

King said the way to deal with it in schools is to put in place strong anti-bullying procedures and guidelines that spell out exactly what bullying is, how to report it and its consequences. She said the goal is to “develop intentional relationships” to make sure all students have at least one adult they feel comfortable going to for support.

A key part of dealing with bullying, Devers said, is to adjust the school culture to address the social and emotional needs of students and staff. SPS established a social and emotional learning committee in the 2020-2021 school year to start researching programs and developing a purpose for the division’s SEL program.

The purpose was “to develop and improve student attitudes and beliefs about self, others and school,” which would then lead to improved academic performance and behavior in students, Devers said.

The division follows the CASEL framework, short for the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. It is made up of five competencies: self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making, self-management and relationship skills.

Staff training on the CASEL framework is ongoing, Devers said.

“We want to emphasize that SEL is not a 10-minute time in the morning,” Devers said. “It’s something that we do throughout our day.”

For students at elementary schools, the division has incorporated daily morning meetings to build empathy and create a positive classroom environment and it integrates SEL into academics in areas such as goal setting. It also has positive behavioral intervention supports, or PBIS teams, at all schools.

The Tier I PBIS teams establish schoolwide expectations of being safe, respectful and responsible.

The Tier II PBIS teams are for students identified as needing additional support, with a daily check-in and check-out process with a teacher for those students. In the morning, students set goals for the day, and in the afternoon before they leave, they look back on how they did that day.

Devers said there is also ongoing restorative practices training for staff to allow them to help students rebuild relationships, identify who may have been harmed and affected by bullying behavior and then determine how it might have happened. The goal is to have everyone in every school trained in this.

Schools also have bullying prevention lessons led by school counselors and teachers, counselors and administrators have resources available to help them in these initiatives.

At the middle and high school levels, the initiatives are similar, with community circles at those locations.

“All of our students grades K through 12 have the opportunity to pass if they’re not feeling it,” Devers said. “We respect that.”

Other student supports that have been established include an anonymous tip line at 757-538-5483 to report bullying. Posters are at all schools with the information, and they also include a QR code that students can scan with their phones to report any issues. The division has also started a new, ongoing social media series called Pause Before You Post, which began Oct. 22 and goes through Nov. 30. It asks people to review what they plan to post on social media before doing so.

“I think one of the most impressive things is our students being able to support each other,” said Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III. “I can specifically remember (Board Vice Chairwoman Phyllis) Byrum, during my evaluation, talking about finding ways for students to have an adult that they feel safe that they can go to.”

He said that even though the campaign ends Nov. 30, efforts to target bullying will continue throughout the school year, “basically a decade-long project until we do whatever we can to eliminate bullying in SPS.”

Board Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck said, in particular, she supports the anonymous tip line for students, “because they should be able to do that (and) there should be somebody in the building they can report this to without fear of somebody retaliating because I don’t want any of our children to feel unsafe when they come into our school buildings. It should not be.”

Board member Tyron Riddick asked that there be verification that the initiative is being implemented in all of the division’s schools, and how it is measuring whether it is heading in the right direction. He said in the week prior to the board’s meeting, he received several calls about a student who did not feel safe in reporting what was happening to her to anyone and had expressed suicidal thoughts.

Riddick also wants the division to establish a “see something, say something” campaign to encourage students to speak up “because in certain pockets of Suffolk, for the lack of a better term, it’s considered snitching and there’s a stigma where snitches get stitches, so kids don’t say anything. They suffer through and internalize it until they can’t take it anymore.”

He wants to know how parents can use these tools to help their children. Devers said the form would go on the division’s website and on social media to allow for family members to report any bullying issues.

Riddick also was concerned about students not understanding the possible consequences of posting videos of fights or other incidents in schools online.

“The first piece that the Student Services Department completed was awareness,” Gordon said. “So now that the awareness is there, now that we have the data, they now know what strategies to pinpoint” and help the division identify the bullies and let students know of possible consequences for that kind of behavior.