By Kelly Erickson
It’s a situation that happens in every educational institution on a daily basis. Somewhere within a school, one student is picking on another. It can be in the form of physical abuse, hurtful words or a simple joke—but somehow, somewhere a kid is being bullied.
According to recent research, bullying has proved to be a learned trend: The more often children participate in bullying as they grow up, the more likely they’ll continue the behavior as they grow older, as far as UW-Madison Police Sgt. Jerome Van Natta is concerned.
“Research is starting to show that bullying in the lower grades tends to continue,” Van Natta said. “The propensity of people involved in bullying activities, organized hate crimes, is growing.”
According to some recent studies by Yale University, bullying victims are between two to nine times more likely to consider committing suicide than non-victims. This trend has unfortunately been true in the last year: Teen suicides as a result of bullying have increased immensely. In most cases, the bullying occurred due to the victim’s sexual orientation.
In an attempt to update educators on gender and sexual-orientation differences, and in effect curb bullying of those in the LGBT community, the University of Wisconsin-Madison is creating a new Gendered Learning Community that would bring a new learning community to UW.
GLC would be a 50-person residential community, co-sponsored by the Gender and Women’s Studies program on campus and launched in fall 2013, according to Cal Bergman, a student supervisor in UW-Madison residence life.
“There is this impression that you go to college, come out, and everything gets better, and that’s really not the case,” said Aiden Caes, a former student services specialist at UW-Madison’s LGBT Campus Center. “Things aren’t all fine and dandy once you leave school. So having that be a national conversation about the campus climate on a collegiate level is progress, but that being said, there is still more to do.”
Bullying is pervasive from universities down through elementary schools, but strides are being taken to combat the epidemic.
Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Superintendent Dan Nerad admits that bullying is a problem in Wisconsin’s second largest school district, but he feels the proper measures are in place to help foster a positive learning atmosphere.
“This is a very thorny problem and in no way am I saying we’re doing all the things we need to be doing,” Nerad said. “But I think we have a pretty progressive agenda around confronting bullying and also educating around appropriate conduct.”
Nerad and his staff have installed a program called Second Step that begins as soon as kids start school and evolves as they grow older.
The program—a PowerPoint of which can be found here—is based on social emotional learning, which attempts to instill pro-social habits at an early age.
“This district has made a huge commitment to what I’ll call ‘social emotional learning,’” Nerad said.
What must be provided, Nerad said, is “a place within the curriculum (for) the implementation of programs like positive behavior support that focuses on what is the appropriate behavior that we need for young kids in school and teaching around that behavior,” as well as “intervention programs that are aimed at interrupting bullying behavior.”
According to the Second Step curriculum, elementary school students start with skills for learning and listening rules which “set the stage for future academic success and later lessons on identifying feelings, managing strong emotions, solving problems, and getting along with others.”
The program continues through middle school with lessons applied to new challenges and temptations middle school students face, from substance abuse to cyber bullying.
MMSD Student Services Director Nancy Yoder has not only seen firsthand the positive outcomes the Second Step program has provided, but she has also heard encouraging feedback from parents and students alike.
“I was just at a meeting the other day where students from schools were advocating in their school for anti-bullying,” Yoder said. “It was really impressive because it has students themselves talking about it. Here are 12- and 13-year-olds talking about it, and how hard they work and how much they see the improvement when there’s a focus on it and people really talk about it. That was pretty powerful.”
Second Step isn’t the only curriculum Wisconsin schools use to prevent bullying.
The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) outlines several preventative measures and models that encourage parents and teachers to act as soon as they can to instill the very same pro-social behaviors MMSD is trying to create.
According to DPI’s bullying prevention curriculum, its program uses an age-appropriate and multifaceted approach that explores “key knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to help develop a school free of bullying behavior.”
With several different strategies in play at all levels of education, creating tolerance of others through education is a common denominator.
“The other aspect of it is to continue to do education with incoming students about their responsibilities, differences from where they came from to where they are at,” Van Natta said of continuing anti-bullying education on campus. “[It’s about] teaching lessons of tolerance and acceptance on campus. I don’t know if we do enough of that.
“But it needs to start in middle school and has to continue through their formative years,” Van Natta added. “Without education, whatever upbringing, whatever their belief system is that they bring to campus, it is going to continue.”
Although the initiatives are in place and making a difference in elementary and middle schools, bullying prevention still has a long way to go. Van Natta noted that bullying and hate crimes on the UW-Madison campus is under-reported, much like sexual assaults.
As a result, there is very little information out there about bullying on college campuses.
Nerad, Yoder and Van Natta agreed: Despite the progress, we still have a long way to go before bullying is no longer a concerning issue. In order to create change in the future, behaviors have to be revised now.
“Bullying is not new behavior but we’ve seen some very serious and negative effects of bullying in our current time,” Nerad said. “It’s just not tolerable. We need strong polices, we need to intervene, we need to teach around behavior.
“We need to help all three roles in this: First and foremost the victim needs to be helped, but we also need to deal with the bully in reshaping behavior and working with the family to reshape behavior. And we need to encourage the norms in school that it’s not cool to be a bystander and do nothing.”