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April 2017 | Volume 59 | Number 4
Avoiding the Fake News Trap
Although the ballots for the U.S. presidential election have long been cast, calls from principals and superintendents keep coming, says Jonathan Cohen, cofounder of the National School Climate Center (NSCC). Administrators are reaching out to NSCC because they are "upset and shocked at how many students feel empowered to be explicitly racist or express hateful thoughts or feelings." One assistant superintendent in New York said students held rallies outside of school, chanting "Mexicans, go home! Get out of our school district!"
Incidents like these are being reported in schools across the country, according to two new surveys. Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, released "The Trump Effect" in late November, a blistering account of the increased rates of harassment in schools after the election. Of the 10,000 K–12 educators surveyed, 90 percent believed school climate has been negatively affected. And more than 2,500 educators reported "specific incidents of bigotry and harassment directly traced to election rhetoric," including fights, racist graffiti, and threats of violence.
Similarly, in a January 2017 Human Rights Campaign survey of 50,000 youth, 79 percent of those who witnessed incidents of bullying or harassment said the behavior has been happening more frequently since the presidential campaign began.
The incendiary political rhetoric has schools doubling down on efforts to create safe environments for students. One way that's unfolding is through bystander intervention training—that is, giving students the skills to step in when they see their peers being bullied or harassed.
"It requires confidence and guts to be able to go and intervene," says UCLA psychology professor Jaana Juvonen. But experts agree that what can often tip the scales in the decision of whether to be a passive bystander or an "upstander" are knowledge and skills.
At the beginning of each school year, Sonia Galaviz's 5th grade class at Garfield Elementary School in Boise, Idaho, spends time unpacking what it means to be a bystander. Galaviz presents a fictional scenario of a crime and students investigate the role that witnesses play. Then she asks students to consider a time when they saw or heard something they knew wasn't right, but didn't intervene.
"We discuss what it means to stand up for somebody," says Galaviz, "how to shift from being a bystander to an upstander." When students raise concerns about examples of racism or hate crimes in the news, she'll ask how they would respond if they witnessed a similar situation. Inevitably, some of the 10-year-olds might say, "I would punch them!" But Galaviz pushes students to think more deeply about what would be an appropriate, helpful response. She collaborates with the school counselor to engage them in examples and real-life scenarios.
These conversations about upstanding are "embedded and engrained into the fiber of what we're doing in the classroom all day, every day," says Galaviz. When she teaches conflicts in American history, like Westward Expansion or the Civil War, she uses the opportunity to evoke empathy and reflection, particularly around the experiences of children.
During a unit on the Civil Rights Movement, for instance, Galaviz focused on the Children's Crusade of 1963, during which hundreds of students marched to Birmingham, Alabama, to protest injustice. Children as young as age 6 had fire hoses and police dogs turned on them, and many were arrested. "Kids filled the jail cells and organized [in the place of] adults," says Galaviz. "We put ourselves in their shoes. What would we do? How would we upstand?"
Some of Galaviz's students admitted that they probably wouldn't have risked themselves so boldly. That prompted discussions about the safest and most effective ways to intervene, while acknowledging that many situations are lower stakes. "Sometimes our choices to stand up and speak up are small," Galaviz reinforces.
Even those with the best intentions, however, can be stifled by the "bystander effect" or bystander apathy, a phenomenon where people are less likely to intervene when they're in the presence of others. But knowing what to do ahead of time can prepare kids to navigate these situations. "The antidote to the bystander effect is skills," insists Lauren Taylor, founder of Defend Yourself, a D.C.-based nonprofit that teaches bystander intervention.
At the most basic level, students need to know to "tell an adult in the building who they trust," Cohen notes. Then, they have to consider "how they can support the target." That can mean reaching out to the victim during or after the incident and letting them know "I saw that, I'm upset by that, and I want to help."
"Just someone saying, 'I know you're hurting,' helps," says Cohen.
In Defend Yourself workshops, students run through scenarios using the three D's—direct, distract, and delegate. When you are direct, you acknowledge what's going on, says Taylor. You can say to the aggressor, "Hey, that's not cool." Or you can ask the target, "Is there something I can do to help you?" When you distract, "you divert the attention of the people in the situation." You might "drop everything you have in your arms and create a scene" or say to the target, "I'm having a lot of trouble with this homework, can you help me?" Finally, a bystander can delegate to someone better positioned to intervene, like a teacher or peer. You could say to the aggressor's friend, "Hey, your friend is acting like a jerk!" Or recruit the target's friends by saying, "Your friend needs help, let's go and help her."
Taylor teaches kids as young as age 3 to notice when a friend needs help. In one exercise, while the class is milling around in a circle, Taylor gently puts her hand around a child's wrist. The child is supposed to respond, "Let me go!" The job of the other kids is to notice as soon as possible that someone is in trouble and say, "Let them go!" You're showing kids "how simple it is to do the noticing," says Taylor, which is the first step in bystander intervention.
Once you notice that something is happening, you have to define it as a problem (not just normal behavior); believe that you can be helpful; have appropriate skills (know what to do); and finally, intervene. These five steps "could take place in a millisecond or over months," Taylor explains, but the important thing is to walk kids through them.
It's easy, but unrealistic, for parents and educators to tell children, "I want you to be the brave one and always defend the kid who gets bullied," warns Juvonen. However, the message could be reframed: "If you see someone getting mistreated, get a friend and tell the bully that what they're doing is not OK." It's a much less risky move, she contends, because "there is power in numbers."
Everyone intervenes in a style that works for them, says Taylor. But "a really important part about what breaks the bystander effect is that somebody does something." Studies show that when one person steps in, more will likely follow.
Research is starting to delineate what kind of bystander intervention helps victims most effectively, adds Juvonen. "It's really about emotional support [and] showing that you care."
One antibullying program that's being used in Finland and other European countries has been particularly effective in improving victim outcomes. A UCLA study, led by Juvonen and a group of researchers, looked at more than 7,000 Finnish students in 77 elementary schools. What they found was that KiVa, a model that focuses exclusively on bystander skills, helped improve the mental health of 6th graders who were most frequently bullied. It boosted their self-esteem and reduced their depression.
The program, which serves kids ages 6–16, is being piloted in Delaware. KiVa starts with awareness training, says Juvonen, in which kids learn how "standing by, smiling or not doing anything, is actually reinforcing the bullying behavior." Then they learn specific strategies for intervening, participate in role-plays with peers, and play video games to practice responding in different scenarios.
"The goal of the program is to change the culture of the school so that kids don't [passively or actively] go along with the bully," explains Juvonen.
For a true culture shift to take hold, students need to see adults modeling bystander intervention. "We can teach all we want, but if teachers are silent when one kid calls another kid a nasty name, then it's not going to work," asserts Juvonen.
The Speak Up at School guide from Teaching Tolerance underscores that teachers need to intervene every time they overhear biased language or stereotypes. It's not only consistency that matters, agrees Galaviz, but also the immediacy of a teacher's response. She won't hesitate to stop a class discussion in its tracks if she overhears "that's gay" or another derogatory remark. "What did you mean by that? Let's talk about how people perceive our language."
"If we don't utilize these teachable moments, then we enable that behavior," adds Galaviz. These moments, she admits, are going to "happen at the most inconvenient times," like when students are "heading into music, getting their food in the cafeteria, or getting on the bus." But "when you invest that time, it's like insurance: the dividends pay off."
Taylor observes that "you can stop a lot of the worst behavior by intervening in the low-key behavior."
"We have a social responsibility to consider what we should do when we see another person or group of people being hurt," maintains Cohen.
Empowering students to stand up for one another is more important than ever. "There's a national rhetoric happening that's quite damaging," says Galaviz, echoing the sentiment expressed by many administrators. In her diverse classroom, where seven different languages are spoken, undocumented kids learn alongside newly arrived Syrian refugees—and the fear of what might happen to their families is "palpable."
"We try to maintain a sanctuary here at Garfield," she says, insulating students from the outside noise. After the election, staff got together to talk about "What can we control?" and "How do we combat these things?"
"To stand idly by is unacceptable," states Galaviz. "So how do we upstand? How do we push against some of the negative rhetoric that's happening, maybe even in [students'] own homes?"
Standing up to a pervasive culture of fear "is a conscious decision not to be afraid and not to live timidly—but to be bold and stand up for each other."
"We cannot solve all the world's problems," she concludes, "but we should never regret that we stood up for somebody else."
Visit www.ascd.org/eu0417upstanders for a collection of free classroom materials.
Sarah McKibben is the managing editor of Education Update.
Copyright © 2017 by ASCD
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