photography by Alex Ham & Elizabeth Lavin

How Dallas Schools Are Fighting Bullies

The new ABCs involve anti-bullying communication.

Bullying has seen a great deal of attention over the past several years. High-profile suicides and violence have created new demands on schools, and 49 states have passed anti-bullying legislation. In Texas, the bill that required mandatory implementation of anti-bullying measures in public schools by the start of the 2012-13 school year surpassed the prior legislation in meaningful ways. It includes a definition of bullying and cyberbullying, training for staff on dealing with bullying, and a mandate to the board of trustees of each school district to adopt policies and procedures to address the prevention, investigation, and reporting of bullying incidents.

Preparation Is Power
The good news is that schools have taken big steps to combat this problem and are making solid progress. I spoke with representatives from three Dallas-area schools to provide an update on what’s happening in the trenches.

The leadership of DISD strongly encourages principals to have programs in place to deal with bullying in their student populations. At Preston Hollow Elementary School, principal David Chapasko and counselor Sharon Sandahl emphasize communication and character building, understanding and respecting differences, and learning to get along. Each morning, as part of his address to students, Chapasko concludes his announcement by saying, “Work hard to give your best and, as always, be kind to everyone in what you say and what you do.” The schools designate certain weeks to discussing what it takes to be a good citizen. During bullying week, they emphasize acts of kindness and respect for others. After speaking with teachers, it was apparent the whole school follows Chapasko’s lead. Any act that is or might be construed as bullying is reported to the faculty and investigated immediately. And even though many of the incidents turn out not to be bullying, they are all taken seriously and addressed by the counselor and staff.

At Marsh Middle School, counselor Raechel Campbell speaks to the challenges of working with students. “I think middle school has more bullying because at that age you’re just trying to fit in and be liked,” she says. Campbell says cyberbullying, through texting and social media sites like Facebook, allows kids the opportunity to bully all the time and with a larger audience, which often makes it much worse.

Campbell also identifies how the media can reinforce negative behavior, noting that “while watching the Super Bowl there’s a lot of bullying going on in the commercials, tripping someone or knocking someone down. And everybody laughs. This trickles down to the kids, as in, this is how we play. I tripped you; isn’t that funny?” In these cases, she says it’s important to talk to the kids about it and not to assume anything. “We’ve become hyperaware of how the child is dealing with bullying. You can’t assume that something small to us is small to the child. Don’t ever assume that a kid is dealing with a situation a certain way, because you’ll be proven wrong a lot of times.”

Snitch Isn’t a Dirty Word
At Marsh Middle School, staff now host a dialogue with their students to discuss options for what to do if kids are in a troubling situation. Students are encouraged to talk with someone about it. This is a departure from the old culture of don’t snitch or tell because there will be retribution from another student or even a teacher. The school also has a way for teachers and staff who are aware of a bullying situation to report it online to school administrators. So instead of waiting to see if a situation improves, it is addressed immediately with the victim and the bully.

Marsh also has a program that trains students themselves to mediate between fellow students. Campbell reports it’s a program that has helped, but they’re still learning the boundaries, and the children aren’t yet well-versed in dealing with and resolving conflict.

At St. Mark’s, headmaster Arnold Holtberg agrees that middle school years are particularly difficult because of where kids are developmentally and the insecurities they tend to have at that age. He states that schools are paying more attention to the problem of bullying and are making more of an effort to combat it. However, like Campbell, he acknowledges the difficulty of policing cyberbullying. Schools must often rely on parents or kids to report incidences.
Bullying Can’t Be Ignored
Years ago, St. Mark’s adopted an international bullying prevention program that provided training to make faculty more aware of the kinds of behaviors associated with bullying and learn how to intervene. St. Mark’s encourages faculty to identify bullying behavior and get administrators involved when appropriate. The counselors, teachers, and advisors all learn to work with both boys who bully and the victims. They’ve also created an environment where students will report bullying behavior when they see it, so an adult can assist. They call this being “upstanders,” not “bystanders.” St. Mark’s also allows students to report bullying confidentially. Students tend to share more information that way, Holtberg says.
Holtberg says rules need to be clear and penalties predictable in order to successfully change student behavior. And just as important, the disciplinary response must be consistent, because if bullying is ignored, the behavior persists. He also encourages parents to reinforce positive behaviors and confront negative behaviors at home. Parents need to help their children understand what constitutes civil, respectful behavior and encourage their kids to be people who step in and help when others are being picked on.

Most school administrators are aware of the damaging effects of bullying. Victims are often socially isolated, have trouble coping in school, and can do harm to themselves and others. Witnesses to bullying can feel threatened, anxious, and unable to focus on learning. And many of the kids who bully over several years often experience legal or criminal trouble as adults, according to Ron Banks of the Education Resource Information Center. For these reasons, among others, it is important for us as a society to continue to share the most effective ways to address this serious problem. 

The Next Steps
Though most schools have programs in place to combat bullying, educators still admit that it remains a problem to some degree. However, there is optimism that they will continue to make progress. To provide a safe place for students to learn, schools understand the importance of dealing with bullying head-on. They’ve instituted the programs, procedures, and staff training necessary. So how can parents partner with schools on this issue?

  • Teach tolerance. Parents and educators can teach children that we’re all unique and that differences should be accepted.
  • Establish rules. Children, parents, and teachers all need to know what constitutes unacceptable bullying behavior. Consequences should be clear and consistent.
  • Allow tattling. Have a culture at school and at home that allows students to report bullying without fear of retribution.
  • Engage in role playing. Parents can practice with their children appropriate responses to a range of bullying behaviors, so that they are better equipped to respond.
  • Measure results. Schools can take anonymous surveys of the student population to gather feedback on what’s happening in the schools, since adults aren’t always aware.

Dr. Gary C. Morchower is a pediatrician and clinical professor of pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical School. He is also the author of 1001 Healthy Baby Answers.