The Last Word October 2011

By Anne L. Bryant

I recently had the chance to meet a bright 13-year-old girl who attends an excellent middle school in a strong school district. Her eyes lit up as we talked about her teachers in her school, and how much she valued learning.

At one point, I asked her, “Are there any issues going on in your school, any problems?” Her facial expression immediately changed. She looked at me intently and said, almost in a whisper, “Yes. Bullying is a real problem in our school.”

This troubled me greatly. We know that students must have a safe and welcoming school climate to learn and achieve. And as school district leaders, we must understand issues that impact the climate of a school and be able to conduct assessments, pass policies, and know how to make improvements when needed.

But consider this: School climate surveys conducted by NSBA’s Council of Urban Boards of Education in 2006 found that:

• Half of all students say there’s a lot of fighting in their school;

• Half of all students witness children being bullied at least once a month; and

• Only a third of students believe teachers are able to stop bullying.

Since 2006, several studies on bullying have given us even more cause for concern. In 2010, a study by the Josephson Institute of Ethics surveyed 43,000 high school students and found that 43 percent of respondents reported being bullied in the past year, and half said they had seen someone else being bullied. According to a 2010 report by the federal Institute for Education Science, one in 20 teenagers had missed at least one day of school in the last month because they did not feel safe. A disproportionate number of those students were Hispanic or black.

These are the national pieces of data that we must pay attention to -- but somehow the voice of the student, with clear discomfort and pain, was just as compelling as the national data.

Just as I was so struck by my conversation with this young woman, I was also moved when I attended last year’s federally sponsored National Summit on Bullying. More than 200 leading experts and researchers were in the room, but I was even more impressed with the handful of students who attended. They voiced their opinions that, in fact, students not only could lead a conversation about bullying but also could lead proactive strategies to prevent bullying or to stop it in its tracks. Following that conference, NSBA began thinking about a school board student conversation around the issue of school climate.

NSBA is very proud to have just launched a small project that we hope will have a big impact. Our Immediate Past President Earl C. Rickman III attended President Obama’s summit on bullying earlier this year and announced NSBA would launch Students on Board, a conversation between school board members and students, which could identify problems and -- much more importantly -- solutions to create safe environments in our schools. (Visit the website at www.studentsonboard.org for more information.)

While a school board member might not be at the school counselor’s or principal’s office when an incident occurs, they are the ones who set the policies to impact school climate and keep our students and staff safe from harassment.

We know good policies are key, but school board members have the responsibility to ask: Is the policy working? Are we implementing it fairly? Is it having an impact?

Bullying is an issue whether it’s physical, verbal, or cyber. Students are not feeling safe in too many schools, even some of the highest-achieving schools, and we certainly can’t expect students to learn if they’re not coming to school or are distracted by bullying incidents. We must work together to understand the impact of this on our students. Their learning -- and in some cases, their lives -- depend on it.  n

Anne L. Bryant (abryant@nsba.org) is the executive director of NSBA and the publisher of ASBJ.