Chicago Schools CEO weighs in on bullying
Updated: November 28, 2011 8:08AM
“How many of you were subject to bullying while you were in school?”
Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard raised his hand even if he was the one who posed the question.
It wasn’t surprising that many of the educators assembled at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center last week also raised their hands. According to U.S. government statistics, 56 percent of all students claim they have personally witnessed an act of bullying.
“I use the word claim because I think it’s very likely that the real number is much higher,” Brizard said. “Even long after a bullying event occurs, the incident can be traumatic and the victims intimidating to witnesses. I think it helps if everyone is willing to stand up and say no more.”
Brizard, keynote speaker at last week’s all-day Anti-Bullying Forum at the museum, comes from a background of standing up and saying no more.
His grandfather spent seven years in a Haitian jail as a political prisoner for speaking out against atrocities committed by the Duvalier regime.
As a child from Haiti now going to school in Brooklyn, Duvalier remembers being tormented as he struggled to learn a new language — English.
“I got mugged just about every single day for about two-and-a-half to three weeks, usually by knife point because I was not a short guy,” he recalled.
Kids would yell insults at Brizard, telling him to go back to his “banana boat,” until his father finally intervened, marching into the principal’s office and demanding that the bullying stop.
“What was most striking for me as a Haitian immigrant was that the kids who bullied were African-American kids who looked just like me,” he said. “I couldn’t understand the hatred. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t see I looked just like them.”
Like many victims of bullying, he felt the scars for a long time, which deepened his belief in the importance of understanding and respecting each other.
“In every instance of bullying, it’s important to provide students with support to the students who are bullied,” Brizard said. “In my case, I was fortunate to have a strong supportive family. But educators are an important part of that support structure as well.”
Effective intervention, however, does not necessarily mean traditional forms of discipline, Brizard said. “Every incident is a teachable moment.”
Schools need to move toward caring, respectful and supportive environments for students, teachers, administrators and parents. Zero-tolerance policies are known to fail, he said.
“Students who bully need positive role models, and no one ever found a positive role model serving a suspension at home or on the streets.”
Formidable challenges await the new head of Chicago schools including a widening achievement gap and disproportionate discipline being handed out out to black and non-black students. A majority of expulsions takes place in ninth and 10th grades — critical years since data indicates there is a link between completing 11th grade and graduating high school.
Brizard brings to this tough assignment a wealth of experiences including his years as principal of the difficult Westinghouse High School in Brooklyn.
“One thing I learned at Westinghouse is that if you keep kids active in something they believe is worthwhile to them, and gives them the right kinds of challenges — challenges they feel confident they can master — they can start to address discipline in a meaningful way,” he said.
In the case of Westinghouse, Brizard implemented new learning opportunities about technology information, an in-school suspension program, more support for all students, and a longer school day.
“Kids started to see real connection between what they were learning and how it would affect them outside of school,” he said. “They began to buy into the school environment, the school programs.”
Reinforcement of positive behavior has become a major focus of his in trying to turn around the Chicago Public School system.
“We have to remember always that we are dealing with young people and these young people haven’t been taught how to manage conflicts,” he said. “We’re so afraid of being accused of coddling bad behavior that we feel obliged to punish.”
But if schools do nothing but punish and stick to zero tolerance and send home kids for fighting, Brizard insisted, “we surrender our teachable moment.”