A rash of teen suicides (4 in the last six months) has alarmed a Schenectady, New York school district. At least two of the suicides have been directly attributed to abuse and bullying, especially girl to girl harassment. However, the school superintendent has been quoted as spreading the blame, “The community is also beginning to understand that these activities are embedded within neighborhoods and even in the homes across our city and across our country.” He has also made the point that educators aren’t parents and that their influence and control are limited. I was interviewed by Steve Van Zandt and Jackie Donovan on their Daybreak program on Radio WROW in the Albany-Schenectady area. Our focus was what the school district could and should do. Steve and Jackie are great in presenting the issues and fielding calls.
Of course, the superintendent is right, but I’d like to see him step up and tell what part of the problem he’s going to attack with speed, intensity and determination.
First, he sounds like he’s leading a debate down the pathway of analyzing all the factors involved and describing the ones he might label as the most important. He’s an “educator,” which means he’ll get stuck in “analysis paralysis.”
But he doesn’t have to analyze or solve the whole problem of teen abuse and bullying in society. He simply has to take responsibility for the number one task of his school district and of each principal. The number one task is not education, it’s safety and security. Only when he can guarantee pretty good safety and security, can the principals and teachers in his district do their second task of education.
Second, he doesn’t have to continue analyzing what’s wrong at school, the kids know and each teacher, principal, administrative assistant and bus driver also should know. One brave middle school student spoke up at a community meeting pleading, “Just help us. We need help.” The four suicides, all in the same high school should be a wake-up call to him.
The superintendent is also wasting the summer; his best opportunity to get programs developed and installed. Summer is the best time to do the behind-the-scenes work to get an anti-bullying, anti-abuse campaign ready so they begin resolutely on the first day of school. A few straightforward, but sometimes difficult steps are for the superintendent, principals and a core group of committed parents are to:
- Develop programs complete with detailed descriptions of what’s considered abuse, harassment and bullying, and with swift, firm processes to impose consequences including expulsion.
- Get support from teachers and staff.
- Get buy-in from the community and a majority of parents.
- Train teachers and staff in what to recognize and how to respond effectively.
- Kick the program off with the students when school starts. Teach them what to do if they’re picked on or if they see bullying or abuse happen to someone else. Teach them how to be bully-proof.
Notice that I haven’t said anything about educating, therapeutizing or rehabilitating bullies. That succeeds only after anti-abuse, anti-bullying programs are implemented.
Wall plaques saying that students must respect each other are nice but ineffective by themselves. A detailed program with clear consequences, implemented strategically, firmly and continually can solve 90% of the problems at school. That’s the best that schools can do
Also, that would be teaching children and teenagers that the adult authorities will actually fulfill their responsibility. New York may also need laws to force this superintendent to do his job.