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Desert Companion

Relationships: It takes a village

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Bullying
Illustration by Hernan Valencia

... to stop a bully. The state has an ambitious new program to deal with the issue — and one zealous new anti-bullying czar 

The word “bully” used to evoke images of an overgrown lout shaking down scrawny third-graders for milk money, or the senior-class “mean girl" in the locker room, lording it over a gaggle of timid freshmen. Not pleasant pictures, for sure, but not without an aura of innocence. Kids will be kids, right?

It seems those days are long over. High-profile suicides like those of Vermont middle-school student Ryan Halligan in 2003 and Missouri teen Megan Meier in 2006 drew major media attention to bullying. In 2010, the president and first lady held the first-ever White House Conference on Bullying Prevention. And in Nevada, anti-bullying efforts came to a head in the 2015 Legislature when Gov. Brian Sandoval pushed for Senate Bill 504, which was helped into existence through the lobbying efforts of Jason Lamberth, whose 13-year-old daughter, Hailee, killed herself in 2013. In her suicide note, Hailee addressed both White Middle School and her bully.

The bill was signed into law May 20, creating the Office for a Safe and Respectful Learning Environment. It not only establishes systems for reporting bullying, training faculty and staff on bullying issues and protocols for hearings on specific bullying instances, but is aiming to reshape the culture and climate of Nevada schools.

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‘Grand effort’

On Oct. 1, Dr. Edward Ableser, a 38-year-old mental health professional married to U.S. Sen. Dean Heller’s daughter, Hilary, was tapped to run the office. Ableser has been tasked not only with getting the office up and running, but with winning over the hearts and minds of district administrators when it comes to state’s crusade to wiping out bullying. And make no mistake, that’s exactly how high Ableser is shooting for his office. 

“The long-term effect is to take steps at demanding positive and inclusive cultures at our schools so we can eradicate bullying once and for all in Nevada,” Ableser says. “Obviously that’s a grand effort. Our hope is through a combination of some of our programs in this office along with many amazing things the districts are doing, we’ll be able to get to that level in the near future.”

It’s an optimistic goal, to be sure, but bolstered by the passage of 504, there’s no small amount of legislative firepower behind it. The state defines bullying broadly and stipulates that every time any adult at school either witnesses or is told of a bullying incident, then by law, they must report it to the appropriate administrator in order to begin an investigation.

Ableser started with a school climate survey that identified the neediest schools in Nevada. He then allocated social workers, paid for via block grant, to go into schools. To start, there is one social worker per 500 students, up to a total of four per school, to the tune of 164 social workers in 123 schools statewide.

“The extent of their role is to be school climate and culture transformation
agents,” Ableser explains. “A social worker will come in and provide year-round messaging. They talk about being an upstander, or student of character, that works on providing positive messaging around the school and creating positive culture and climate online from a universal perspective. Their role is to be omnipresent throughout the school.”

There are more than 25 distinct programs individual schools can choose to implement, such as the Be Kind Project, which teaches social and emotional learning; or the Anti-Defamation League of Las Vegas’ No Place for Hate, promoting inclusiveness and tolerance; or even programs as simple as No One Eats Alone, which encourages kids to mix up their lunchtime social circles.

Data on bullying has only been made public for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 academic years, predating the office’s creation. Statewide there were 4,298 reports with 3,721 incidents determined to be bullying or cyberbullying after an investigation the first year, and 5,638 and 4,939 the second. More than one in five of those incidents ended in suspension or expulsion.

Since the signing of 504 into law, the number of incidents being reported in Clark County has increased. This, though, is par for the course in what administrators have seen when anti-bullying programs have been codified in other states.

“What I’m beginning to notice now starting this year is that the reporting of incidents has kind of leveled off,” says Brandon Moeller, the assistant director for the district’s Equity and Diversity Education Department. “There haven’t been any big spikes or major increases, so we kind of hit our peak. I’ve looked at other trend data nationwide and usually after it hits a peak, it begins to trickle down a little bit more to kind of an average reporting level. We haven’t quite reached that yet, but I believe we will. I think that will come from people knowing that once they report they’re going to get a reaction from the Clark County School District to stop the situation. Then we’ll just notice in general a whole cultural change in the district.”

Empower play

With those reports come more investigations, which are the bedrock of anti-bullying policy. They vary district by district. In Clark County, for example, students are brought in one at a time for adult mediation. Any bystanders who may have witnessed the bullying are also interviewed. Parents of both the bully and the victim are notified. Consequences can vary by school and the number of times a perpetrator has been in trouble, but typically involve a parent-teacher conference, suspensions or a kind of in-school community service where the bully is required to help out around the building. After about 10 days, administrators will check back with the victim to make sure things are still going fine. If there was a repeat offense, the process starts over again.

If a student feels like he or she is being unfairly bullied by an adult, they have recourse there, too. They can report it directly to the state hotline and the Office for a Safe and Respectful Learning Environment will investigate. There have been 25 cases reported thus far, with 13 being substantiated.

“The situations that have come before me are situations where adults have made emotional comments, language that is hurtful to a child and should not be tolerated,” Ableser explains. “A student is incapable of telling the difference between sarcasm, or that an adult just said something in the heat of their emotion. The adult is supposed to be the stable, calming safe place for this student. That’s our job in this office, to empower these adults to understand the mistakes that they’ve made, learn from these mistakes and work on schoolwide changes so that other adults don’t make the same mistakes, as well as a restorative process so the youth feel empowered by the adult. They hear forgiveness embedded in the conversation with that adult and they feel empowered that the adult is now an ally of that youth.”

“Empower” is a favorite word of Ableser’s. He uses it often, and calls his remedies for these situations “empowerment plans.” They avoid labor issues with the teachers’ union that may come from districts and schools doing their own investigating, but there’s still a carrot and stick in play. “We don’t compel anyone to go through our empowerment plan,” he notes. “However, if a teacher or staff member refuses to engage in this practice, then we have to protect our youth. We have no other option then perhaps a punitive recommendation to a school district, and the school district is compelled to follow our corrective action plan.”

It’s part of a soft-touch hardline that Ableser takes with the entire issue. Loath to lapse out of the soothing positive-reinforcement speak that shades toward Stuart Smalley caricatures of mental health professionals, the only time he moves toward flinty is when he addresses the idea of whether there’s anything of value to be gained in students learning to resolve conflicts on their own without adult intervention. In other words, what about the timeworn theory that kids dealing with bullies on their own builds character and teaches valuable life lessons?

“I would say the people that are claiming those arguments are also the ones that are getting into barfights at 2 a.m. and getting thrown in jail because they feel it’s incumbent on them to settle everything with their own hands,” he says. “It is anecdotal. There’s no science to that. I’m going to call out the administrators who fall into a different paradigm. They’re the ones who have been resistant because they don’t believe in this. I’m not going to ever acquiesce to those old-school ways of thinking, because that’s what’s gotten so many communities in trouble, where kids who have been needing adult intervention, adults have sat on their hands and felt like kids need to go through hard times to become callused and pulled themselves up by bootstraps. (With) that type of resistance, we simply encourage districts to perhaps evaluate their personnel. Perhaps that person might be suited best to become a real estate agent and not work with youth.” If Ableser is so adamant, he says it’s because he has science on his side, citing research, for instance — inconclusive research, at best — about how bullying can trigger, on a genetic level, anxiety and depression.
 

Getting involved

Well beyond the schoolyard and the classroom, awareness of bullying seems at an all-time high, too. Joe Navarro is a 25-year veteran of the FBI who served as both a criminal profiler and a behavioral profiler, and has written extensively on nonverbal communication. He spoke at the Girl Bullying & Empowerment National Conference at Caesars Palace June 28-July 1. That the national conference was held here speaks volumes about the collective headspace that bullying is taking up here in Southern Nevada.

Navarro’s two presentations covered four personality traits that tell the story of a dangerous person, which includes bullying. He also held a seminar on using nonverbal methods to communicate effectively. When confronted with a bully, for instance, Navarro said there’s a technique employed by law enforcement that can be used to de-escalate confrontations.
Creating distance and angles with your body so you’re not face-to-face with a bully, and avoiding eye contact can help soothe some of those instincts that may trigger a bully into amping up their aggression.

Being cognizant, too, of the types of personalities that tend to bully can help in discerning the right way to de-escalate situations. He breaks them up as the pathologically narcissistic, the paranoid, the predatory and the emotionally unstable.

“We’re dealing with the human brain. The question is why do they do it?” Navarro asked at the seminar. “They do it because it makes them feel good. It makes the paranoid personality, the narcissistic personality and the predatory personality feel good. The rest of us, not so much.”

At home, parents should look for signs, the school district’s Moeller says, that might indicate a kid is getting bullied at school. If they’re acting depressed or withdrawn, spending more time by themselves or losing friends, the adults in a child’s life need to keep talking to them until they can get the child to open up. Parents are just as encouraged to report instances of bullying to the school as kids are.

For the state and district, it all comes back to getting adults involved. By engaging with the system, anti-bullying champions hope to transform the nature of punishment, by focusing on restorative practices that try to resolve conflicts between children as they work among themselves, instead of turning to the traditional answers such as suspension or expulsion. The goal becomes not just to revolutionize how bullying is addressed, but to upend what education is, by shifting the focus from the likes of history, English and math.

“It means as adults we have to understand for that child it’s more important for them to learn how to empathize and care about others than it is for them to understand the Magna Carta and its effects on American civilization,” Ableser says. “Those are important knowledge pieces and sometimes we become lost in the true outcomes we want for our children. I can assure you that, confronted with that dyad, everyone would want a child to gain empathy, to gain the ability to connect with another student and develop those skills instead of a simple knowledge acquisition. So what we’re doing with that is challenging the fundamental premise of what is academics.”

Indeed, if it takes a village to raise a child, the new thinking is that it clearly takes one, too, to deal with bullying.

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