The new school year has arrived and with it the possibility of bullying in school. Transition periods can be tough for students and families, and while there very well might be an air of excitement that accompanies the back to school transition, there might also be worries, concerns, and anxieties that pop up about different aspects of being back in the school building.
In a perfect world, bullying would not exist and school would be a place of joy, learning, fun, and friendship. While we hope that more often than not, school is a positive environment for youth, the reality is that bullying is something that our children may have to contend with. Starting the new year with a plan for addressing bullying, should the need arise, can help families feel more prepared if something does happen.
What is Bullying?
Each school has a code of conduct and student handbook. It is highly encouraged that parents and students familiarize themselves with these standards. This will help families have a good understanding of what constitutes bullying behaviors, how bullying is to be addressed in the schools, the people in the school system who are there to help, and what the expectations are for students in terms of attitudes and behaviors toward faculty and peers.
Ryan Voegtlin is the Director of Student Services for Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS). In broad terms he says that bullying can be described as behaviors that are intentional and repeated over time. While repetitive and targeted behaviors directed toward one student, or group of students can be the hallmark of bullying, he is careful to note that some isolated incidents may also be classified as bullying behavior. “Bullying comes with intent.” He says. “We also look for the power differential and behaviors that create a hostile learning environment.”
Procedures and Reporting When Bullying Occurs
When concerning incidents do arise and parents or students learn of bullying (whether isolated or repeated) Voegtlin says that it is important for parents and students to know where to go for assistance in addressing these issues. The AACPS website has a specific form where both parents and students can report each incident that occurs. This Bullying, Harassment or Intimidation Reporting Form is available in both Spanish and English. Once the report is submitted Voegtlin explains that the principal of the school at which the incident occurred is notified and must open an investigation. “The bullying report is a way to make sure that each incident is handled in the appropriate way. With the form comes an accountability piece, administrators have a timeline where they must complete documentation and an investigation of each incident.” he says.
If students are not comfortable or do not wish to fill out the form, they can also go see their school counselor for assistance in addressing the matter. Voegtlin says that when incidents of bullying or conflict between students arise, the counselor will often meet with both the victim and the aggressor, but will never force the two to be in the same room together to discuss the incident.
“Administrators and counselors will work with the victim to provide support and offer appropriate skills and strategies, and will also work with the bully to identify what is causing the behaviors and to address any underlying causes and factors.” Voegtlin also emphasizes the importance of reminding students that while it can be scary to speak up, it is an important step in protecting themselves, and protecting others from similar behaviors.
A common question among parents is how instances of cyberbullying or bullying off school grounds are handled. Voegtlin says that anything that happens outside of school that has a direct connection to the school environment including buses, bus stops, and school sponsored activities can be addressed through the administrators. While not all off-school incidents will fit the criteria to be handled by the school directly, Voegtlin encourages parents and students to still reach out to the counselor as they can provide the resources, referrals, and information necessary to help connect you with the right people to help address the situation.
Advice from the Experts
Proper reporting is an important part of documenting incidents and ensuring that appropriate actions are taken. There are also strategies that parents and students can utilize in the home to be proactive when it comes to preventing bullying, and to address any instances that arise.
Molly Stackhouse is a local mental health professional and nationally certified school psychologist, who works closely with the school system. She believes that bullying is preventable. “I try to stay away from extremes. However, I think with a strong tier 1 system in place, it can be drastically reduced and possibly avoided entirely.” She says that when it comes to supporting a child once a bullying incident does occur, parents can help by letting their child know that they did the right thing by reporting it.
Finding the courage to report an incident can be difficult and kids can benefit from that validation. Beyond school provided resources, Stackhouse says that if needed, parents can also get help from providers outside of the school system to offer additional support. “It’s normal to have an outside clinician help children therapeutically and work collaboratively with school counselors to help your child transfer the skills into the school environment.” she says.
Samantha Straub is a local LCPC. She says “Adults have an obligation to use their power to create safe environments for kids.” She suggests things like helping kids develop a rich emotional vocabulary. “Using feelings words often with younger children helps them develop their own feelings vocabulary. Use feelings words to describe your own day and your own emotional state.” And above all, she says adults should model kind and inclusive behaviors.
What if Your Kid is the Bully?
One tough and less frequently talked about aspect of bullying is how parents can address the issue when it is their child that is doing the bullying. Straub suggests the following steps:
Kimberly Palmiotto is a local LCPC and Educational Psychologist. She says that when it comes to bullying, it is important for parents to get the full story. She says parents need to understand what happened from their child’s perspective, as well as gain insight from a teacher or other adult who may have been present. Once they have the full picture, she encourages parents to seek assistance and involvement from the counselor and to continue to create a bridge in communication between school staff, parent, and child.
One more piece of advice that is often overlooked has to do with how a parent might feel personally when it comes to their own experiences with bullying. Palmiotto explains that for parents who may have experienced their own bullying, these types of situations can be triggering and bring up old traumas. She has the following advice for how parents can contend with issues surrounding bullying when it brings up their own past in a difficult or intense way.
“When you are triggered, take a moment to identify what your own experiences and triggers are. Ask yourself, What was it like for me at this age? What were the experiences I had growing up with bullying? What lessons have I learned that I can pass on to my children? What do I wish would have been handled for me differently and how can I use that to support my child? If you are feeling impacted by the events that your child is dealing with or past traumas are resurfacing, it is a good idea to seek out professional help for yourself as well and to see a therapist or mental health professional.”
Jillian Amodio is a mother of two, mental health advocate and creator of Moms For Mental Health, and social work student at Salisbury School of Social Work. She is passionate about family, health and wellness, and spreading joy like glitter! She lives in Cape Saint Claire with her husband, children, and crazy dog.