What I Have Learned About Bullying In Seattle Public Schools

by holli on March 16, 2018

This post has been a long time in the making. I could have written this in 2015, but I wanted to have more answers. I wanted to have a story with a happy ending. This is the story that has no ending, it keeps on and on my friends. In truth, there are no simple, easy to follow guides to share.

All I have is my experience as a parent and volunteer. So, find a comfy chair, grab a cup of coffee because I have a lot to share (with the full disclosure that I am nothing more than a parent and volunteer)…

I came to learn about bullying and the district to school level education and support after my son was in 4th grade being bullied. He didn’t tell me right away. He started becoming really sad. He started to dread going to school, and started to do a lot of negative self-talk about how stupid he was. It was a heart-breaking experience.

He’s now in 6th grade at the same school, and is having the best school year socially than he has ever experienced. K-3rd grades were challenging because he had other struggles (Introvert, Sensory Processing Disorder).

Our experience showed me that even though we attend a very progressive, social-emotionally aware school with anti-bully posters around the school, bullying happens. It keeps festering in environments where there aren’t clear consequences or awareness on how to cultivate and nurture a community that doesn’t tolerate that behavior. One school assembly with a play by a fun local theater group a school year doesn’t do it.

My son’s experience with bullying started to change once he learned how to work with his teacher and others to report it, and find support for himself. We also read several books together to help him better understand the difference between bullying and someone just being a jerk one day. I also wanted him to learn that bullying is a behavior not a character trait. Just because someone is  bullying him, it doesn’t mean they will always be acting that way.

He also attended a self-defense workshop that was provided free to our community at the local Community Center. Though his experience with bullying was mostly verbal, and covertly being kicked in the back of the legs while walking down the halls, that physical workshop gave him another level of confidence he clearly needed.

Once the bullying did reach a physical incident: being shoved into the fence on the playground, he was prepared in that he didn’t cry (he had been embarrassed and cried easily before, but knew it fed the bullying behavior and had built up some tolerance) and he knew the adults at school were going to address it. But, he was really frustrated by how swiftly that incident was handled and how little was done about the verbal bullying before. All that to share why I became so invested in volunteering to change our school culture.

The current system:

Seattle Public Schools has provided a curriculum (2nd Step) for teachers to teach social skills and address bullying. However, the teachers themselves have to figure out how to fit this into their schedule.

What happens is that some teachers teach it at the beginning of the year and others toward the end. It’s like teaching Kindergarteners to read at different times – you create a disparity of knowledge – a gap that is unavoidable. On the playground, if someone is bullying, some kids will know that’s not okay and others won’t. This is where I see the biggest challenge to a district requirement for bully prevention in our schools. They provide the tools and at the State level it’s required teaching, but without consistency and congruency it’s not effective.

What we’re doing at our school:

The staff and teachers are overworked and overloaded. We’ve formed a small committee under the PTSA to cultivate and create a definition and protocol for reporting that works for our school’s culture. These committee members are teachers, counselor, Instructional Assistants and parents.

The district definition, for example, is not easily understood by students in K-5th grades and gave me pause as an adult. The OSPI website (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) has a few definitions on their website for reference:

Bullying – negative actions which are intentional, repeated, negative, show a lack of empathy, and a power imbalance.

Olweus Bullying Prevention Program: A person is being bullied when he/she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons. Negative action is when a person intentionally inflicts injury or discomfort upon another person, through physical contact, through words or in other ways. Note that bullying is both overt and covert behaviors.

Center for Disease Control defines bullying as any unwanted aggressive behavior(s)by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated. Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm.A young person can be a perpetrator, a victim, or both (also known as “bully/victim”). Bullying can occur in-person and through technology. Electronic aggression or cyber-bullying is bullying that happens through email, chat rooms, instant message, a website, text message, or social media.

Stopbullying.gov: Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems.

In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:

An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people
Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.
Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.

You can read more on their Bullying Fact Sheet here.

I learned that our teachers do not all agree that the district provided curriculum (2nd Step) is relevant or effective when it comes to bullying.  And, RULER (social-emotional) learning is focused on teaching students to become aware of their own emotions and self regulation tools. It also teaches about becoming aware of others and includes a blue print for resolving conflicts. But the big gap is in practical side of bullying: what is is, how to be an up-stander (standing up for others when being a witness), how to report it, compared to someone just being plain mean and having a bad day.

It took us a full school year and a few months to get a definition approved for our school – we worked as a committee made up of parents and staff, then gathered feedback from the teachers, students 4th-8th grade, then the teachers again for the final draft. We came up with a definition that grows per age-appropriate gaps: K-3, 4&5, 6-8th. We have one clear sentence for K-3, adding a few more specific ones for 4&5 and even more for 6-8th to include sexual and cyber bullying.

Now, we’re working on a report sheet that is more accessible to our students than the district HIB report. This will likely take another full school year to accomplish.

My most frank advice to any student struggling with bullying is to find a trusted adult who can help advocate for you. The laws are in place to protect you.

If you are the trusted adult advocating for a student, fill out the forms for reporting. Speak directly with the school Assistant Principal, Principal or student’s teacher.

If you are a parent worried your student is being bullied, I encourage you to listen to your instincts. Be open to talking with your child’s teacher, your school counselor, Assistant Principal or Principal. And, while you may find yourself in Mama or Papa Bear mode, remember that the school staff and administrators are doing a tireless job. They are your advocates, and the don’t know what they don’t know. Work with them.

. . .

Books we found helpful:

Bullied – a book from the perspective experience in Kindergarten and working with her child’t school. It’s a good overview about bullying and how it starts in Kindergarten and goes all the way up through 12th grade. Personally, not super helpful for our situation but would have been good reading before my kids started school.

Wonder – the book they made a movie about recently. About a boy with fascial deformities who attends school and faces a range of aggression from gossip to name-calling to bullying. It’s a well done story as it shared viewpoints from everyone in his life. I found that it helped us see that bullying is a behavior not a personality trait.

Stick Up For Yourself: A kids guide – a self help book for students ranging from 4-5th grades. In full disclosure, I’ve read a lot of self-help books as a grown adult. This was like all of them condensed down to the basic principals of understanding power in relationships and how to speak up for yourself. Our 3rd grader read it,  and also found it helpful.

There are many more books geared for younger children with wonderful stories and examples. Most of the books written for older Middle School and High School students are focused on helping girls. There’s a wide range of books available and not one single book to help everyone. A handful are written for boys. There’s often one paragraph or a very short chapter for students who do not identify with a born gender. I believe there’s a lot of room for more books that will help our kids who do not fit into social boxes.

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