Looking at the school bullying problem through a different lens

By Annie Gentile - ReminderNews
Willington - posted Fri., Feb. 25, 2011
Jo Ann Freiberg, Ph.D. (left) with Cathy Britschock, founder and president of the Willington Special Education Parent Teacher Association. Photo by Annie Gentile.
Jo Ann Freiberg, Ph.D. (left) with Cathy Britschock, founder and president of the Willington Special Education Parent Teacher Association. Photo by Annie Gentile.

Jo Ann Freiberg, an education consultant with the Connecticut State Department of Education’s Bureau of Accountability and Improvement, said that ever since the January 2010 suicide of bullied South Hadley high school student Phoebe Prince, her office phone has been ringing off the hook – despite the fact that the State Department of Education is prohibited by state law from investigating bullying claims or intervening on anyone’s behalf.

On Feb. 16, the Willington Special Education Parent Teacher Association hosted a discussion entitled, “Bullying, School Climate and Character Education,” at the Willington Public Library, with Freiberg as the guest speaker.

“Parents call me in desperation,” said Freiberg. “Families feel they’re not getting help, but bullying claims must be handled at the district level.”

The frustration, Freiberg said, is not just on the parents’ part. State confidentiality laws also tie teachers’ and administrators’ hands, making it difficult for them to communicate to parents what they are doing on the other side. Additionally, no one wants to believe that their child is a bully, and no school wants to acknowledge they might have a bullying problem. From a practical standpoint, she said, bullying isn’t even always easy to define, as the state has redefined its bullying law multiple times.

With all that in mind, Freiberg’s advice is that rather than focusing on whether someone should be labeled a bully or not, they should stop “pushing the bullying button” all together, and let a child know in no uncertain terms that specific behaviors are mean-spirited and unacceptable.

“Rip down the ‘Bully-Free Zone’ signs. Kids don’t think it’s about them. It’s a toxic, toxic hot potato,” she said.

Freiberg said schools need to make a paradigm shift by doing much more than simply telling students to be kind, nice or respectful, but rather showing them what kind, nice and respectful behavior looks like.

While parents at the program felt Freiberg provided some good advice, some cautioned that there are no easy answers.

“If kids come from horrific backgrounds, it’s simplistic to say that if we make school a happy, jolly, place, that kids will be fine,” said parent Rachel Cameron. “I feel parents are a huge component and I see less and less parent accountability.”

Freiberg qualified her statements saying her message is one of emphasis, but definitely not a cure-all for every situation. “Refusing to accept mean behavior in a school community, teaching kindness and role-modeling, engaging parents by making them understand they are a huge component to their child’s success – this is all a part of their education,” she said.

Despite her office’s limitations, what Freiberg said she can do is talk to parents and gather basic information that helps to track possible trends in bullying. She also makes calls to school principals, offering her office as a resource.

Freiberg said reports of bullying rise about the time that students enter middle school. This is telling, Freiberg said, because it underscores a common denominator for children – and adults, as well – that in order to feel safe and comfortable in one’s environment, a person needs to have a sense of connectedness within their community. Freiberg offered a handful of basic measures that can help schools foster connections.

Freiberg added that the military has done some significant positive research since the Columbine school shooting, finding that students in transient populations struggle more academically and socially if they make multiple moves to new schools.

“Six to seven moves is about the breaking point for most kids,” said Freiberg. “We’re looking down the wrong lens and need to look through the lens of connectedness as a remedy.”

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