Fix the Climate of a School and You’ll Fix Bullying
By David Sheridan
Senior Writer, NEA Human and Civil Rights
Walk into almost any school today and you’ll see a “no bullying” poster. Awareness that bullying is a serious problem and not a harmless rite of passage has reached new heights. Many school districts and schools have rolled out anti-bullying policies.
And yet, the torment of bullying persists, hurting one in three of today’s students. Awareness was an absolute necessity, but not a solution.
Increasingly, social scientists, such as George Sugai of the University of Connecticut, tell us that since bullying is a social act, we have to take a hard look at the social context in which bullying occurs. To prevent bullying, they say, we have to address its root cause—the climate of a school.
This indeed was the number one conclusion of the academic experts and practitioners at the Bully Free Summit organized recently by NEA.
School climate has nothing to do with global warming—and everything to do with the norms, values and expectations that support all school staff and students in feeling socially, emotionally and physically safe. “We’re talking about a school environment where all students feel wanted, valued, accepted, and secure, an environment where students can interact with caring adults they trust," notes Michael Ford, behavior specialist with the Maryland State Department of Education.
Creating such a safe and positive climate won’t happen overnight. It will take a sustained, data-driven, student-centered effort involving all the adults who come in contact with students—everyone from bus drivers to school secretaries, principals, teachers, custodians and cafeteria workers.
It must begin with a survey of students, staff, and families regarding the school’s current climate. While the opinion of these diverse groups may differ, we need to learn the degree to which they feel connected to the school—and for the students, whether they feel safe.
Systemic change of school climate is a tall order because what you are really doing is changing the culture of a school. It’s definitely not for those with short attention spans. What’s more, there is no one-size-fits-all program that suits all schools.
There is, however, a substantial body of knowledge on how to promote a positive and collaborative school environment that school climate changers have tailored to their local circumstances.
The really good news is this. Schools that have implemented school climate improvement strategies have documented decreased discipline problems as measured by fewer suspensions and office referrals, reduced needs for counseling and special education services, and improved academic outcomes. They’ve also seen a decline in bullying.
School climate improvement takes time, but it’s an act that keeps on giving.
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Steps to Stop and Prevent Bullying