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Becoming an Upstander

By Marla Schreffler

While Tiverton High School is located in a rural, suburban school district in Rhode Island, one with strong community ties and friendly families, we have our share of bullies. We also have our share of outstanding student leaders, many of whom belong to the Peer Helping Network (PHN). The 60 members of PHN come from different social groups comprising approximately 10 percent of the student population.

PHN members are not just the popular kids. These are kids who have been nominated by their peers as classmates others would seek advice from. In the complicated social hierarchy of teen life, PHN members might not ordinarily be "friends."  But their commitment to promoting a safe, inclusive school environment is undeniable.

The group’s purpose is to tackle emerging issues on campus. In May 2010, PHN decided to address the bullying problem. This decision was start of a year-long journey for students and staff at Tiverton that brought us together in discovering sustainable ways to understand and prevent bullying.

In September 2010, as PHN members grappled with their approach to stop bullying, simultaneously, a diverse group of faculty members were mulling over responses to a student survey on academic and social life that had been conducted the previous May. Survey results indicated that campus and cyber bullying was perceived by students to be an issue. Also, with media attention focused on the tragic spate of suicides in response to recurring episodes of bullying, school systems had been mandated to adopt measures in response to incidents of bullying.

Consequently, a faculty task force was formed to address the bullying issue. It included the assistant principal, three guidance counselors, the department head of the physical education department, the school's community service coordinator, and me, the school psychologist. There was additional input from a faculty advisory group that had to approve our lessons for the advisory sessions, and the coordinator for the student council.

The faculty group and PHN decided to work together. What ensued was a dedicated, thoughtful, and meticulously carried out series of events promoted jointly through the efforts of both groups.

Initial Steps

Students in PHN felt that the results of the May 2010 survey did not provide sufficient information to address this issue. They wanted to know how many students perceived that bullying was a problem, where bullying incidents occur, and what type of bullying occurred. They wanted to know how many students reported seeing incidences of bullying and, of those students, who reported it.

That October, PHN students conducted their own, new survey. Results of the student needs assessment showed that while the majority of students did not perceive bullying to be a problem, 67 percent of those students who witnessed it, did not report it!

Results like this from the student survey would ultimately drive the course of action taken by students and faculty with regard to bullying. The mutual goal was to identify ways to promote a school climate that endorses accountability for students to take action -- to become upstanders -- and to encourage caring and compassion for classmates.

“School climate is based on patterns of school life experiences and reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching, learning and leadership practices, and organizational structures,” according to the National School Climate Center. 

Ultimately, we wanted Tiverton’s 630 students to feel valued and secure in an environment that promotes mutual caring and trust.

Changing the Culture

One thing was clear to our joint task force: students needed to know what to do in a bullying-victim situation. So, a series of educational events were planned. Student input for planning events was critical.  They were able to inform faculty members what they felt that the student body would best relate to, opting for a mixture of pedagogy and active engagement. For example:    

  • A series of “lessons” on bullying and upstanding behavior was promoted through joint student-teacher facilitation during advisory periods.
  • Students in PHN attended a workshop from Youth Pride (the Rhode Island chapter serving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth) with the goal of acquiring skills to assist their peers.
  • In late fall, a school-wide assembly was conducted by the student-faculty group. Guest speakers included a mother whose adolescent son committed suicide in the wake of repeated bullying episodes, a young woman from a theatrical group who was victimized, and members of Youth Pride. 
  • Following the assembly, 64 advisory groups in the school participated in a poster contest representing themes presented during the assembly. The posters were displayed around the school.
  • Two students from PHN were profiled in a town meeting sponsored by a TV station to discuss Tiverton High School’s efforts to address the bullying issue.
  • A second school-wide assembly in spring 2011 was facilitated by a retired police officer of PAVE (Partnership to Address Violence through Education).  He discussed the criminal aspects of bullying and victimization.
  • A week-long series of events co-sponsored by PHN and the student council was held leading to April-Friends Day/National Anti-bullying Day. Twice daily announcements were read to encourage positive relationships, such as, thank a teacher for making a difference in your life. Funds were raised to support CABINS (Community Against Bullying in Schools).

In the End

Last May, a post-survey assessment was taken using the same questions as in May 2010, though with additional questions added to evaluate the impact and efficacy of our anti-bullying events. Our most important finding was that 50 percent of the student body would now be more willing to report incidents of bullying — a 17 percent improvement over just seven months.

The interpretation here is that the majority of students perceive the school climate to be safer since before the PHN survey was administered in October 2010.

Last May’s post survey provided space for students to share anecdotal comments. We were very interested to learn that if there was a change, what specifically made the difference for the students. Overwhelmingly, it was the personal stories they heard at school events and other venues that made the deepest impression on students. Students reported that the experiences of victims and their families made the issue more real for them.

Many indicated that they had previously been dismissive of the problem. They remarked that they would now be more upstanding and utilize the tools that were given to them to address issues of bullying. This shift in attitude was exactly what the student-faculty task force was aiming to change.

While the statistical indicators of the survey may not be categorically huge, we have no doubt that the concerted student-faculty efforts have made a positive impact on our school. There was a shared responsibility for all stakeholders to make our school safe and caring, thus reinforcing a positive school climate. We have no doubt that students are more knowledgeable and equipped to deal with bullying when it occurs. Ultimately, we achieved our main goal: empower students to be upstanders.

Marla Schreffler is a regional school psychologist at Tiverton High School and a member of the Middletown Teachers Association.


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