Museum fights against bullying
Illinois Holocaust Museum President Fritzie Fritzshall and Vice President Aaron Elster talk with Harvey Miller, president of the Harvey L. Miller Family Foundation, Oct. 20 during the inaugural Anti-Bullying Forum at the museum. | Tamara Bell~Sun-Times
Updated: November 28, 2011 8:07AM
The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center’s inaugural all-day Anti-Bullying Forum last week, packed with useful information for educators from throughout the region, seemed to gravitate toward a few repeated points.
Bullying in schools is not something that should be ignored — written off as a “kids will be kids” phenomenon — and a “zero tolerance” policy against student perpetrators of bullying doesn’t work. What does work, more than one expert said, is providing ways to make students feel connected to their schools.
Educators attended panel discussions, break-out sessions and a keynote speech aimed at addressing an age-old issue in schools that often has dire consequences for everyone involved.
That the Illinois Holocaust Museum should sponsor the timely event during National Bullying Prevention Month made perfect sense. The museum has taken seriously its role as an education center and its mission to teach standing up against wrong and cruelty at an early age.
“As an educational institution, it is essential that we offer strategies to address issues of intolerance generally, and bullying in particular, which young people and all levels of society face today,” said Museum Executive Director Richard Hirschhaut. “We hope that today’s forum will equip educators with the knowledge and tools they need to help children escape the dangers of bullying.”
The Oct. 20 event was sponsored by the Exelon corporation and the Miller Family Youth Exhibition, which was recently revamped in its on-going efforts to reach children.
It’s no revelation that bullying occurs inside schools every day and is witnessed by groups of children. The issue reaches front page news when heart-wrenching tragedy occurs and young students take their own lives; the torment becomes too intense.
Social media have created new brands of bullying, which have exacerbated already painful situations for student victims.
About 73 percent of kids are on social media networks such as Facebook and nearly that many text an average of 112 messages a day, reported Dr. Dorothy Espelage, professor of child development at the University of Illinois, who led the panel, “Bullying and its Consequences in the State of Illinois.”
But Espelage also said that “cyber bullying” in reality is different from its media portrayal.
Studies show that about 20 percent of kids who use the Internet are cyber-bullied. Among the 20 percent, she said, two-thirds of those students are less impacted.
In total, about 8 percent of children are bullied on-line or through texting. But studies show that bullying through text messaging may be increasing nationally.
A key question then is how schools should respond to cyber-bullying since most incidents occur at night or in the home.
Espelage also said that language used by bullies inside the schools has changed.
“Eighteen years ago when we had interviews talking to kids in middle schools and about the words that they used, we did not hear what we hear now,” she said.
Thirty-five to 50 percent of bullying content is related to homophobic bantering and epithets, according to studies, Espelage said.
“Garden variety bullying seems to be causally linked to homophobic bullying, which is causally linked to sexual harassment perpetration in our schools. Homophobic language and homophobic bantering are alive and well in our schools and they serve a purpose to isolate certain individuals — especially if there are girls not acting like girls and boys not acting like boys.”
Many of the anti-bullying programs circulated through education channels, she maintained, have not been successful.
“In this state, we’re actually promoting these very programs that are not effective in our schools,” she said. “Essentially, the story is that we do not have a proven program.”
Many anti-bullying programs, she said, fail to recognize that bullying co-occurs with other types of aggression including sexual violence, dating aggression and homophobic bantering nor do they factor in peer environment or the impact of family violence or demographic variables.
“Kids that want to go to school in your building and teachers that want to get along and don’t bully one another and administrators who are out in the hallways and know their kids’ names and do professional development and have gay and straight alliances tend to have lower rates of bullying but they also have lower rates of any type of any adverse behavior,” she said.
Also on the panel were Jennifer Louden, director of youth development and positive behavior support for the Chicago Public Schools.
Louden believes bullying should be approached as a need to provide children with skills to avoid risky behavior. Never is it acceptable to normalize bullying behavior, she said.
“Don’t let little things go,” she said.
Chris Sang, youth initiatives coordinator for the Illinois African American Coalition for Prevention, addressed the consequences of marginalizing people. When he asked if a room filled with educators ever witnessed bullying at their schools, almost all hands shot up.
“Zero tolerance is not something that works,” he said, echoing the strong conclusion of other panelists.
Shannon Sullivan, executive director of Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, concluded that racism remains a serious issue in schools, noting that five times as many African Americans are expelled from Illinois schools as non-black students.
Detentions, suspensions and expulsions don’t work, she said.
Northern Illinois University Associate Professor Mickie Wong-Lo has spent much of her research on cyber-bulling. She concluded that parental involvement is essential in addressing the issue as many parents are incredulous when discovering their child is a bully victim over the Internet.
“There is a huge gap between what kids know and what parents know,” she said.
Another panel, “Skill Sets and Best Practices,” focused on practical ways to address bullying situations.
Perhaps the clearest conclusion from the museum’s informative and well-organized examination on bullying is that there are no easy answers or shortcuts.
Espelage reeled off some of the best ways to confront bullying: ample opportunities for dialogue and discussion; explanation and rationale for disciplining kids and moving away from zero tolerance; curriculum and other practices that provide kids with an ability to reflect upon their own behaviors and their personal, social and moral dimensions; and opportunities for students to follow through and help fellow students.
Educators, she said, need to understand ways in which institutions, classrooms and practices “privilege” certain types of identities over others and how some students are being silenced.
Bullying programs need to incorporate both the discussion of sexual harassment, homophobic language and bias-based bullying, she said. There needs to be understanding that some kids come from homes where they witness violence, which only reinforces behaviors in school. Responsible use of technology is also key, she said.
“The social world is complex and part of our job is to help children to negotiate this complexity,” Espelage said. “We need to give kids life and social skills — not just knowledge about bullying.”