As a teacher in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s, Kevin Truitt had 52 kids in his class.
“We were taught, you do not write referrals unless you need an ambulance, or unless there is blood,” says Truitt, who is now associate superintendent of student, family and community support at San Francisco Unified School District. “If kids were being mean to each other in the classroom, we had to deal with it right in that room so that the community of learners would learn to treat each other respectfully.”
Today, (some) class sizes are smaller, but kids are still being mean to one another. And they have more places than ever to do so, online and off, from mobile phones to social media. All of this makes peer culture more pervasive for young people and more difficult for adults to moderate.
We were lucky enough to host journalist Emily Bazelon, author of “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power and the Character of Empathy,” in San Francisco this week. Bazelon is one of the most articulate voices on the role of technology, schools, and parents in stemming bullying online and off. Bazelon was in town for a panel discussion with Truitt, Lucinda Lee Katz, head of Marin Country Day School, and Common Sense Media’s CEO Jim Steyer, to talk about her book.
“We’re focusing on bullying so much now because we’re hungry for deeper thinking on how kids are growing up in ways that are different than the ways we grew up,” Bazelon told the crowd.
Bazelon said bullying has become a “vessel” for thinking about how school culture can do a better job of supporting children’s emotional well-being and help to prepare them for learning.
She stresses that schools should ideally move beyond a one-off assembly to discuss bullying, and instead focus on changing the school environment, which can influence the level of aggressive behavior kids face in the classroom, on the playground, and online.
Administrators said the spread and the reach of online tools can make what used to be playground name calling more pervasive and more complex. The bullying can “feel 24-7,” Bazelon said, because the interaction with peers doesn’t stop when kids leave school.
“It used to take days before it got around campus that you broke up with someone. Now before you get out of class, everyone knows,“ Truitt said. The speed and the complexity of the situations can and often does leave educators and administrators intimidated by the breadth of new technologies and confused about where and how to step in.
Truitt, who manages support staff for schools throughout San Francisco, said he often faces situations he doesn’t know how to handle. A parent recently showed him her daughter’s phone with several texts that read, “Why haven’t you killed yourself yet?”
“As an educator I’m supposed to have all the answers. And in this case, I often don’t.” He said he often relies on tools provided by Common Sense Media to give support to his colleagues and to parents, and also relies on his experience in teaching empathy and kindness in classroom settings.
“We’ve always as educators taught character education,” he said “this is just another medium.”
He said schools in San Francisco have had some success with an initiative called “Restorative Practices,” which works to shift the way educators think about discipline and school climate by focusing on relationship building and opportunities for students to be held accountable and take responsibility for making their school a safe and nurturing environment.
Panelists also discussed the importance of parent education, of working with parents to understand their fear and discomfort around technology, and encouraging them to step in and provide guidance with technology just as they would in any other situation. They also stressed the importance of giving kids some vocabulary to talk about their feelings and learn to develop empathy. No easy task.
“One of the things that really struck me in reporting for this book,” Bazelon said, is that “only 20 percent of the time kids stand up to bullies. It’s a really hard thing to do. We’re asking a lot.” Bazelon said kids often worry they will become the next target.
She told the story of Monique, a 13-year-old girl she profiled in her book, who was depressed and lonely after enduring months of bullying. A member of a local boxing program, Monique had stopped coming to practice. Her coach asked her teammates to encourage Monique to come back. One team member called Monique and told her “we want you to come back to practice.” And one girl responded to a rude thread on Facebook by saying “oh, but she’s my friend.”
“We need to figure out how to create a kind of culture where more kids can play that kind of role,” Bazelon said.
Lynne Carlton, a librarian for two elementary schools in Half Moon Bay, wanted concrete strategies to help her second and fifth graders, who are participating in discussions on digital literacy and citizenship using our curriculum.
Carlton said her students’ overriding response to the lessons on cyberbullying has been “I don’t want to be the tattle tale.” Her students, she said, are afraid of being singled out for harassing behavior if they stand up for their friends.
“I’m looking for tools I can give these little guys on how they can be a proactive bystanders without setting themselves up,” she said.
Bazelon said it’s important to give kids multiple strategies to stand with victims and to help them see that even small moments of empathy can go a long way. She recommended kids send a sympathetic text message or simply ask the victim if he or she is doing ok.
“Kids need to know that small moments of kindness as opposed to big moments of standing up, can be powerful,” she said. “Sometimes kids don’t want to intervene because they think, ‘He’s not my friend,’ and they don’t want to take that kid on as a project. But you don’t have to be the person’s best friend to do something kind in the moment. And that can be really helpful.”
For more strategies to use at your school, our cyberbullying toolkit is available for free online. Bazelon has been speaking around the country on bullying and helping kids develop empathy. But even if she’s not coming to a city near you sometime soon, don’t miss her recent appearence on Stephen Colbert where she helps Colbert come to terms with his own bullying past. We hope to host her in the Bay Area again very soon.