Students report that clear plastic backpacks, metal detectors and armed guards in school do not make them feel safer.  They feel like prisoners in their own school.  So what does it mean to feel safe in school?  It is easier to say what makes school feel unsafe:   physical abuse and violence, verbal taunting, ridicule, threats, spreading rumors, and humiliation, all of which can now take place more publicly and to a much wider degree, thanks to modern technology.  Cell phones, texting, YouTube and Facebook now allow us to torment each other instantly worldwide.   Most students have been both perpetrator and victim to some degree of these behaviors in the course of their school careers.  So we all are capable of making someone else miserable and know what it feels like to have it done to us.  When students don’t feel safe in the school environment, classroom, lunch room, playground, corridors, restrooms, stairwells, after school waiting for the bus or on the public transportation home, they can’t fully engage in learning.  They are either preoccupied with an earlier incident or thinking about how to avoid a future perceived torment.

Most adults believe that the older the students are the less they need (or want) adult help.  It isn’t true. Even adults have difficulty dealing with bullying and intimidating behavior. Just look at our U.S. Congress.  The older we get the more serious the intimidation can become.  Dealing with bullying in school at every grade level requires adult (particularly parents and teachers) involvement.

How can elementary school children deal with the playground bully?  What happens when children fight back?  Or tell an adult what’s going on?  What happens when they don’t?

My wisdom about the answers to these questions comes from my own experiences as a child, student, parent, teacher and administrator.  What I’ve learned is that adults are generally ineffective and unreliable in dealing with bullying behavior.  They wait too long to address it.  They encourage kids to “ignore the bully, s/he will soon get tired of it and stop.”  Often both bully and victim receive the same punishment. We suspend and expel them both, which does not prevent the bullying behavior from happening somewhere else with more fear and anger.  KIDS NEED HELP FROM ADULTS WHO KNOW HOW TO DEAL WITH THIS VERY SERIOUS ISSUE AT SCHOOL.

I’ve learned what doesn’t work; I’ve also learned what does.  No one–administrators, teachers, parents and certainly not students–can deal with bullying on their own.   So much of the time, as is often reported after the fact, the adults claim to have been unaware until the worst happens, while students claim that the behavior took place right under their noses.  They want us to see what’s going on and do something about it and they are not comfortable to tell us directly because what we do about it doesn’t work.

Some things that have worked and why….

Situation #1                   

When my youngest son was in 4th grade Special Education, he and some of his classmates were regularly tormented (taunting and physical pushing and shoving) by a playground bully.  This had been a topic of discussion with their teacher in class.  No effective solution had emerged as to how to deal with the situation.  My son is a very peaceful person who avoids physical conflict while confident in his ability to defend himself, which he gained from his study of karate.  He and his classmates had taken too much of the abuse, finally one day at lunch, my son pushed back and knocked the bully down.  His classmates were backing him up and looked on cheering. In their eyes my son was a hero.  No adult witnessed this playground fight, so he and the other boy were not punished for fighting.  The teacher, who knew from her class that this student was bullying them, shared with me that although she didn’t condone fighting, in this case she was very glad that my son had stood up to the boy on behalf of himself and his classmates.  I believe this worked because my son and his classmates had a rapport with their teacher.  She and they had discussed this problem looking for a solution.  When my son took matters into his own hands to settle things, he wasn’t alone; his class was with him and his teacher understood that natural consequence is a strong teacher.  However, what happened to the student who was doing the bullying?  I do not believe anybody followed up with a plan to positively integrate this boy into the school community.  I believe he remained an outsider who would continue to bully other students.

Situation #2

My oldest son, when he was in 7th grade, came home from school one day complaining that for the last several days his lunch was being stolen out of his backpack and he had been going without lunch.  Although he had a suspicion about who was taking it, he wasn’t completely certain and he didn’t want to “squeal,” which he perceived as having unpleasant consequences; and since he didn’t know for sure who it was, there wasn’t much the school would do about it.  My kids really enjoyed their sack lunches brought from home and lovingly packed by their dad, so eating the cafeteria lunch was not an option.  My husband, son and I were able to craft a creative consequence that took care of the bullying without tattling.  The plan for the next day was a lunch packed and left in the backpack with a few extras—some Tabasco sauce poured liberally on the sandwich, cayenne pepper sprinkled on the chips and the usual juice box was not included this time.  In addition, my husband would drop off a real lunch for our son in the office before lunchtime. The spiked lunch was stolen that day, and that was the last time my son’s lunch disappeared.  However, the bully was never discovered and the problem remained unaddressed by school personnel.

The following two examples are from my small public high school that was based on a person centered approach:

Situation #3                                                                                                          

Several juniors had been with each other since ninth grade.  They had been through my leadership program where they learned about and practiced congruence, empathy and unconditional positive regard.  A student joined the school in the middle of the year – a bit of a loner, someone who didn’t know how to join in and relate to the other students.  He and his family enrolled in our school because of bad relationship experiences elsewhere.  He came to me and shared that he was getting some harassing phone calls at home (he wouldn’t tell who), and his parents were also very upset about what was being said on the phone, which is why he brought it up to me.  As Counselor of the school and the person who enrolled this family, I had made some promises that we deal directly and effectively with things like this.  With his parents’ encouragement, he finally told me who was phoning him.  I was very surprised at who was doing the bullying – kids I perceived as very inclusive.  I called them into my office and asked why they were tormenting this student.  They said they didn’t understand his odd behavior.  They attempted to befriend and include him.  When he didn’t respond the way they thought he should, they started teasing him, just trying to ‘get his goat.’  I explained that he and his parents were very upset and I asked them what they proposed to do to ‘clean up this situation.’  They and he all agreed to a meeting facilitated by me.  They all wanted to be friends, and just didn’t know how to get the other’s positive attention.  The discussion that took place was very effective because they all listened to each other and began to understand each other at a deeper level. They were willing to be real with each other and take responsibility for their actions, even the new student.  I concluded that the reason it was so effective was because the students had a background in leadership development, personal responsibility, person-centered approach, and they had a relationship with me that they valued.  They were able to use the skills they had been taught to transform the conflict and be authentic with each other.

Scapegoating goes hand in hand with bullying.  The dynamic is about wanting attention—any kind of attention.  A student who becomes a scapegoat is used to, and even comfortable with, everyone’s anger, thinking s/he might even deserve this cruel treatment.  Such a student is sometimes very aware of the things that really bug other people, seeming to purposely push everyone’s buttons.  S/he starts out the day planting negative seeds with the other students and their teachers as well.  Then throughout the day s/he goes about watering the seeds and by the afternoon, an entire garden of upset has emerged.  The scapegoat then becomes the recipient of some mean and cruel reactions.  A bully might find a scapegoat the perfect target, and others in the community will think s/he deserves it.  An example:

Situation # 4

A Russian student called Katya was teased mercilessly and didn’t have much savvy about American culture. Much of her behavior was born of fear of her past situations and imaginings of what might happen. She became a scapegoat for some of the other students who found it difficult to accept what they thought was paranoid behavior.  She often accused other students of talking about her behind her back and plotting against her.  Even her teachers became weary of her complaints and sometimes hysterical disruptions to their classes. One day her hair was burned with a lighter by a classmate. Katy ran from the room and took a couple of other students with her to provide comfort.  It was a major disruption to the class and other classes as well.

When breakdowns occurred in class, it was our practice to have the entire class form a circle and to focus on the feelings, thoughts and information about what was going on, until we get to the bottom of the upset.  Some of the students knew who had done the deed, but were reluctant to tell.  I went to work with Katya.  The teacher reminded everyone about what kind of school they wanted, what behaviors were hurtful and what needed to be done to create the kind of school community the students wanted for themselves.  With encouragement and persistence, the student who lit Katya’s hair on fire finally admitted that she, Donna, was the culprit.  Donna shared her hostile and frustrated feelings about Katya.  Other students shared some of the same feelings but did not condone the action she took.   The class was able to have an honest, open conversation with Katya after their group process and my individual work with Katya.  Donna and her mother and I found another school placement for Donna. The students in Katya’s class, including Katya, learned some things about assumptions, judgments, and overlooking bullying behaviors.  They found out that they could talk about things that bothered them and that the adults in the school would be there with them.  Katya’s relationship with her fellow students began to improve that day and she was able, eventually, to make some real friends.  I learned those who are the hardest to love, need it the most.

What makes a school feel safe is:

An environment of open communication and respect among students, teachers, administrators and parents.

  • When someone’s got a problem, we take time to deal with it.
  • Everybody knows your name.
  • Less competition and more collaboration.
  • Students, parents, teachers and visitors alike feel welcome on campus.
  • The presence of Person Centered Approach (PCA).

In my experience, the elements of a safe school are achieved best when there is a high degree of personal development among the staff.  When people know how to relate to others using congruence, empathy and unconditional regard, the number of painful and unsatisfying interactions decreases significantly.  People stop blaming others when problems arise; listening with the intent to understand becomes common practice; appreciation for the differences among students and teachers is prized; and communication becomes efficient, allowing the business of teaching and learning to go forward without fear

What are congruence, empathy and unconditional regard? 

I like to describe congruence as an authentic sharing of my experience, thought, opinion, belief, or feeling as far as I understand myself in that moment.  Empathy is my willingness and my ability to be completely present with another while they explore their experience, setting aside my own feelings in order to follow them on their journey.  For me, unconditional regard is openness to the potential that exists between us, and treasuring the differences another brings to our relationship in that moment.  These are the core attitudes of the Person Centered Approach.  They are very necessary to create a safe school.

School safety is often very little about physical safety and mostly about emotional safety.  If students feel that they can talk about anything that concerns them, and teachers feel free to engage their students authentically, then the community they create together will be a safe and peaceful place.