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October 4, 2012

MCS hosts presentations on 'Dignity'

MICHELLE MILLER
STAFF WRITER

Milford — Preventing bullying and promoting respect were the topics of the day at Milford Central School on Tuesday.

Katy Allen of the Impact Training and Evaluation, Inc., visited the district to host informational sessions about working together to implement The New York State Dignity for All Students Act. According the State Education Department, the legislation, which took effect on July 1, seeks to provide the state’s public elementary and secondary school students with a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment and bullying on school property, a school bus and/or at a school function.

Allen went over the definitions of words such as conflict, bullying, cyberbullying, drama, and harassment and described mean teasing verses fun teasing – all things that educators will be dealing with to help ensure students feel like schools provide comfortable learning environments.

According to Allen, a study done in 2001 showed 9 percent of students bullied others in school yearly and 13 percent were victims. She said she estimates that 16 to 24 percent of high school students were involved in cyberbullying (bullying that takes place using electronic technology) the past year.

MCS Principal Michael Miller said overseeing cyberbullying is hard enough, but dealing with something that turns into aggravated harassment is even more tricky because that is a crime. Miller said he understands aggravated harassment to be the use of electronic technology of some kind and making someone feel uncomfortable.

"We are not in a position to judge that. We do not know yet as a school district, because we won't know until July of 2013, as to whether or not the police departments- whether the state police or the county police or the local constables- will work with us. We don't typically turn things in. Our MO is to say to you as parents, 'that this is something you might want to take to the police department,"' Miller said.

Allen explained that schools do not have to address cyberbullying under the Dignity Act until next summer.

"There is a lot of complications with all of this, particularly around sexting, when students start sending pictures (often nude) back and forth to one another," Allen said.

Another factor, according to Allen, is a student's age.

"What is happening in some places is that kids have been labeled sex offenders because they have passed child pornography around and that is what it ends up being about," she said.

First Amendment freedom of speech rights make things even more complicated, according to Allen. She said there have been several court cases that have gone all the way to the Supreme Court that challenge the schools' ability to regulate free speech of students. Outcomes seem to be determined based on whether or not the communication is "substantially interrupting the learning environment," Allen explained.

For example, Allen said a court ruled in favor of a boy who started a website that posted bad things about his principal. Allen said the judge determined it was obnoxious speech, but free speech,and that actions taken by the school would be more disruptive to learning than the actions of the student.

"There are all kinds of constitutional issues here," he said."There is freedom of speech versus freedom to come to school."

Allen went over signs that a student is being bullied, but cautioned that they are also signs of stress. Signs include symptoms of depression, an increase in trips to the nurse (vomiting or headaches that aren't accompanied by a fever or other flue symptoms), bouts of anger or other emotional outbursts, refusal to associate with someone or appearing afraid of someone, avoidance of particular places in school, missing items, a drop in grades and a lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed. Allen said there are different forms of bullying such as physical, verbal, visual and social-relational.

Why do students bully one another? Allen said it can alleviate boredom, provide entertainment or amusement, enact revenge, express contempt for someone who is disliked, ostracize or shun someone who is not welcome, enhance status with peers or force someone to conform to group norms.

Allen said she also believes the environment one grows up in contributes to bullying. She used the research of Diana Baumrind to show three types of parenting styles _ permissive or neglectful, authoritarian and authoritative. The characteristics of the later is what should be encouraged, according to Allen.

"Those characteristics include believing in the child, trusting the child, listening to the child and letting that child know he is important," Allen said. "Democracy is learned through experience and discipline should be handled with authority, but dignity is protected. Rules should be simple and clearly stated ..."

What may come as a shocker is Allen does not see punishment as the best solution for correcting bullying. She said it often leads to worse behavior.

"They are all works-in-progresses," she said. "They are learning and making mistakes. We have to look at them as mistakes and help them move beyond them."

Because of the way laws are written, Allen said, there is a requirement to find somebody who is a victim and somebody who is is a perpetrator. However, she said it is not as clear-cut as that.

" she said.

"We are not going to legislate or punish our way out of the bullying problem," Allen added. "We need to think of creative and humane ways to help kids shape their behavior."

It is a good idea to offer children opportunities for amnesty (opportunity to confess without fear of punishment), according to Allen. She said she used this tactic right before bed with her children at home because it provided an opportunity to talk about what was done, why, how it affected others and what could be done so it would not happen again.

"This is important because one thing we are finding out is there is a lot of reciprocal aggression going on back and forth between young people. For example if you give me a nasty Tweet then I will give you a nasty Tweet back," she said. "Sometimes it makes one person look like the bully, but in fact it may be that there is a lot more mutuality going on there than what anybody knows about."

Allen said a child might go to their mother and show her a bunch of nasty Tweets posted by someone else after deleting what they had previously posted.

According to Allen, educators cannot be the only ones held responsible for educating students about acceptable behavior; there needs to be help from parents. The messages that parents can give to help include:

*"You don't have to like everyone, but you need to treat everyone with respect."

* "It is wrong to be mean to someone just because you don't like him or her."

* "Being assertive is standing up for yourself in a respectful way. No one has the right to hurt you, but neither do you have the right to strike back at someone who has hurt you. Objecting to aggression is not the same as striking back to inflict the same amount of or more harm than you experienced."

* "Being respected is better than being popular."

*"Revenge usually backfires."

* "Just because someone is different does not mean he or she is unworthy."

* "Life isn't always fair and you won't always get what you want."

Allen said adults should model anger management, self control, respect and empathy. Children should also be taught that boundaries are critical, she continued.

"Youth seem to have an infatuation with celebrity-ism. They can get that feeling when presenting themselves on Facebook and other social media platforms. However, when you make the world a stage by putting yourself out there in network spaces for all to see, you may become a celebrity, but as with all celebrity-ism, there are people who will take nasty shots at you," she said.

Other social networking sharing advice provided by Allen included:

* Never share a Facebook username and passwords with anyone except a parent.

* Don't vent, criticize or attack anyone via text, Tweet, or Facebook because even if it is deleted it can still be attained.

* Don't post anything on a social networking site or a blog that you would not want your grandmother, parents or principal to see. It lasts forever and the consequences of bad judgment now can follow you for your whole life. Ask yourself, will this hurt my chances of getting into college or getting a job if an admissions officer or an employer sees it.