The panel included Jo Ann Frieberg, Ph.D., Education Consultant, School Climate, Bullying and Character Education, Bureau of Accountability and Improvement, State Department of Education, Elaine Ducharme, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist, practicing in Glastonbury, and Mindy Otis, Ph.D., Chair of the Climate Subcommittee of the Middletown Schools District Data Team.
It was an intense session, largely due to the topic, but also to the presence of family members of bullying victims.
What became immediately clear, is that this emotionally-charged topic is complex, difficult to discuss dispassionately, and that workable solutions are available, but implementation is not easy or simple.
The experts were in agreement on a few things:
- The law has not been helpful in defining, or providing solutions to the problem
- Abuse of power and victimization is wrong, and needs to be addressed immediately (“if it’s ‘mean,’ intervene” Frieberg suggested.)
- Our culture has extended the reach of those wishing to torment others via the internet
- Standard measures of discipline (suspension, expulsion, denial of participation in school activities) have not been effective
- The only solution is a systemic adjustment in the “climate” of a school and of the larger district where all students, all stakeholders, feel “connectedness” and all leaders are on the same page in terms of expectations, model behavior, intervention and respect.
Mindy Otis represented the Middletown School District’s approach to attacking the problem. She indicated that change in school climate is now part of the “district improvement plan,” and that her group has been studying data on topics like absenteeism which might be indicators of problems in the schools.
I’m happy that the district is institutionalizing “improved school climate,” but I’m afraid that in the time spent studying data, and the further time it will take to create formalized standards and implement the change in climate, more students (victims) and parents of victims will be subject to the kind of threats, intimidation, physical harm, psychological torment and humiliation that, if we are willing to be honest, are present in Middletown schools right now.
Frieberg stressed that a change in climate does not have to be gradual, but can happen quickly, and with immediate impact, but that every adult in the “system,” whether it’s a single school or an entire district, must be on the same page.
“It all comes down to leadership,” Frieberg confided to me personally after the meeting.
Which may be the reason that “bullying” cases appear to be so mishandled in the district.
It’s fine to give lip service to “a climate of kindness,” and to codify the need to establish this atmosphere of respect in the school, but unless every adult is on board, the climate will remain polluted and bullying will continue.
In the schools, everyone from the principal to the crossing guard must understand and practice the concepts of respect, tolerance and kindness. And acts which breach this respect must be addressed.
In the district, the same must be true. Unfortunately, there is real evidence that respect is absent, kindness is scarce and employees, parents and students are asked to tolerate central office decisions, while the feeling isn’t reciprocated.
These systemic problems must be solved if we are ever to arrive at a true change in climate.
As Frieberg said, “it all comes down to leadership.” The good news is that we are about to elect five new members on a nine member Board of Education. Among the eleven candidates, there are several who have explicitly called for an improved climate for education in Middletown schools, a return to civility between the Board of Education and the city and its residents, and a renewed leadership on the board.
I know those are all things I believe in, and will work to implement if elected.
A knowledgeable vote is important on Nov. 8. Learn all you can about the candidates, and vote for a climate cleansed by the sunshine of openness, and the fresh air of accountability.