Michigan was named the number one state in the nation for bullying in 2016 according to a study by WalletHub. Kids who are bullied are more than twice as likely to consider suicide, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Nationally, it is reported that 70 percent of students have witnessed bullying in their schools and 90 percent of 4th through 8th graders report being victims of bullying. And, depending on the environment, according to national studies, LGBT, students with disabilities, biracial, obese, and socially isolated youth are at an increased risk of being bullied. However, locally, student clubs, community organizations, and school districts are working to combat bullying in strong, proactive ways.
Anti-bullying student clubs
Cheryl Haller, the college and career adviser at Skyline High School, has been the Anti-Bullying Club adviser for three years. Haller says the purpose of the student Anti-Bullying Club at Skyline High School is to “build bullying awareness and build up students who are feeling marginalized or who have been bullied.”
“Most of the time, bullying is not blatant,” explained Haller. “Many times it is among their peers, and those peers are unaware that teasing has gone too far or is unwelcome. Occasionally, more blatant bullying occurs, and those students are reported immediately to administration. Cyberbullying is the most common form of bullying. Students should screen-shot any online bullying and report it to school authorities. I am most impressed with those students who see bullying and report it. This eliminates the fear of retaliation that victims sometimes feel if they report it.”
Group members in the past have used Anti-Bullying Club time to talk, share stories, and build awareness in the school. According to Haller, awareness and learning how to be empathetic is critical to understanding what bullying is and how to eliminate it. “Bullying is not on the rise at Skyline,” stressed Haller. “The school climate, culture and norms discourage it, through school-sponsored programs and education such as ‘Skytime’ and the ‘Sky Squad’ program which is student-led and allows for peer mediation, education, and bringing all students together.”
Haller has good advice for parents about bullying. “Listen to your children and look for any changes in behavior such as not wanting to go to school, feeling anxious, losing appetite, or is moody after being online via social media,” said Haller. “One of the best ways to have an impact is to simply make the school aware if you notice the above changes. Each high school is filled with caring adults who want to help.”
Washtenaw-wide bullying intervention
Peri Stone-Palmquist has been the executive director of the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan for four years. The Center serves all of Washtenaw County and works to help vulnerable students stay in school, realize their rights to quality, public education, and experience success. Their work also includes facilitating bullying interventions.
“We are most frequently called for assistance related to school discipline,” said Stone-Palmquist. “We have seen many cases where a student was being bullied for an extended time, felt overwhelmed, and got into a fight with the person bullying them. In those cases, like all discipline cases, we use restorative questions to better understand the situation and help the family prepare for the discipline hearing. We explore alternatives to suspension with the family and school.”
Stone-Palmquist added that their organization gets inquiries from bully victims as well. In those cases she says, “we help the family find the district policy, document their concern, and work up the chain of command, as needed. We explore options such as a safe person, circle of friends, check in-check out and social work support. If we are getting more calls from a particular district, we try to encourage the district to think about professional development and community conversations.”
School districts’ role
According to Andrew Cluley, Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) communications specialist, in the 2015-16 school year “there were 42 incidents of bullying that AAPS reported in our School Infrastructure Database (SID). This June was the first year this information was included, so we only have the one year of data.”
Dawne Linden, AAPS executive director elementary education, stated that AAPS tries to develop a culture of inclusion within the schools. “While we don’t experience high levels of bullying in this district, any bullying is a problem,” said Linden, and noted programs in the district to combat bullying such as the Upstander program. She also says it’s important to include parents and to educate students about the power of bystanders. “Bullying can be covert and difficult to catch but when peers stand in support of anyone being bullied it is quite effective in stopping the behavior.”
According to Dr. Benjamin Edmondson, superintendent of Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS), bullying in YCS is similar to other school districts. “There is likely bullying in YCS like any other school district, we are not an outlier,” said Edmondson. “But we do strive to communicate with our students and we ask that they do the same.” He added that opening up dialogue about bullying for all involved is critical to improving the challenge of bullying. “As parents it’s important to be active at your student’s school and keep an open line of communication with your child’s teachers and principal.”
And while some recent statistics indicate that bullying has been increasing, some believe that with more attention and awareness now being placed on bullying, that makes it appear to be on the rise. Regardless, many parents, teachers, students, and community organizations in the area are taking a more active role to combat bullying and ensure a positive environment in schools for all. That is something worth celebrating.