BY CHRISTINE BERNSTEIN
Candidate for District
Los Alamos Public Schools Board
These are my opinions and experiences and are not meant to be a reflection of the board or the district. When I use “we” I am referring to all of us as a society of parents, educators, and community members. And I have been given permission by my daughter to write and publish her stories.
When my daughter was in 5th or 6th grade she was getting called a certain derogatory name due to the fact that her body was developing quite early. I recall her coming home and telling me her experience and her feelings around this. She was hurt and confused. She couldn’t understand why this girl said this about her. I sat and listened and expressed empathy. I asked if she wanted me to do anything and she said no.
She went to the school counselor and asked her to help her have a conversation with the other girl. She wanted to understand why this girl was saying this mean thing about her. According to my daughter, it turned out well. The two discussed civilly and came to understand the reasons and intentions behind what had happened. My daughter felt better and understood better why this girl had said the mean thing she had. And the other student had an opportunity to share her own experience and feelings.
Again, my daughter experienced bullying in Middle School. Some girls were making disparaging comments about her through social media. I recall her coming home very upset and confused- yet again. The words that stick out in my memory the most were her saying that these girls didn’t even interact with her and didn’t even really know her so how could they be saying such mean things? Again, I gave her space to express her feelings and talk about it with me. I asked if she wanted me to do anything, and again the answer was no. She spoke to the school counselor and she also talked to a teacher she trusted. After a few days she came to me and said the following, “I realized that these girls don’t know me at all and that they are just insecure and it really has nothing to do with me. I am not going to give it any attention and feed into this drama.” She left it alone and it went away.
I was dumbfounded. How did this 7th grade girl understand this? How did she figure this out? It is something I still have to think through when I feel bullied.
As the district discusses bullying and I read comments and experiences about kids being bullied, I think about her and her resiliency. The ability to have empathy for the bully, to be able to have a face to face conversation with the bully is courageous and disarming.
Recently I saw a parent commenting on an experience their child was having in elementary school being bullied. And I kept thinking about my daughters’ experiences and I also started wondering about the bullies.
Why do bullies bully? What drives the meanness of words or actions? I wonder, is this person in pain over something else? Are they feeling things they cannot understand and take it out on another kid? My daughter told me about the conversation between her and the classmate in elementary school and it turned out that the girl was jealous. I have always allowed my daughter to choose her own clothes. The girl was jealous because she was allowed to wear what she wanted to school, while her parents did not allow her that same freedom. So, my assumption is that the child expressed her feelings in an unproductive negative way. And this is not to judge, but she probably didn’t know any other way. It makes me wonder: What pain is a person experiencing in that they are taking it out on others? And do we ever talk to the bully with empathy and curiosity? Or do we just admonish and shame them, possibly exacerbating whatever is stewing inside?
I agree that we need to deal with this issue. But there are some factors outside of our control.
No one has any control over what someone thinks, feels, says, or does. We can control consequences. And that is all.
No one has control over how someone feels, reacts, thinks.
We have no control over what happens outside of school.
Here’s what we can do and what we should do:
We should make sure school is a safe place for all kids. And do we do that?
We should be building resiliency. We should be talking about resiliency and what it looks like. We should discuss what it is and what it isn’t. (I have written about this a few times and I will be writing about it again.)
But with regards to bullying, what we can do is give our kids tools. We can model these tools and use them as adults in the system and in our community.
One tool is to teach them to disarm the bully. Helping our students see that when someone says mean things or does mean things to them they can walk away, give it no attention. What if we taught our kids that when someone is mean, when they are hurtful and unkind, when they say things about us that do not feel true, what if we helped them respond with curiosity?
What if they said to their bully, “Why do you think that? Why are you saying that?” Or if they simply did not respond and said to themselves: This person must be feeling something that has nothing to do with me.
What if we gave our kids tools such as empathy and resiliency.
I was talking to someone about the issue of bullying recently and he said that it has always existed and it will always here. And the best thing we can do is to disarm the bully by giving it no attention. The bully is seeking something. They need something, but it is the wrong way to go about it.
Schools can’t fix everything. When a kid leaves school, school has no control over what happens. However, schools can make it so every kid is safe. But schools cannot control what every kid thinks and feels.
The adults need to model what we want to see in our kids. I love how my daughter had the ability to address her bully in a healthy, heartfelt, honest and courageous way. I learned from her. I am not always courageous in addressing the people who bully, but I do have the ability to tell myself, it’s not about me. When people are unkind, there is something bothering them.
We can keep the anti-bullying campaigns going in our schools, but I would like to see a new approach.
I would like to see us build resilience in our kids. I would like us to help our kids know their own self worth and to not give so much credence to the opinions of others. For our kids to know their value as humans.
Last year, as a sophomore, my daughter spoke up. She defended a kid in her class when the teacher was admonishing him for something he hadn’t done.
After class, her classmates came to her and said they couldn’t believe she stuck up for that kid. Her response: He is a human being.
All our kids have a world of uncertainty they will enter when they leave here. They will come up against all sorts of criticism, put downs, discouragement, and unfairness and judgment. There will not be a principal or a parent to punish the people that hurt their feelings.
We need to be giving our kids the ability to disengage with mean people, walk away from unkind words. To find the self esteem within to know it isn’t about them, but about the pain of others. And to have empathy.
My daughter continues to experience difficult situations and negativity from others, yet what I observe is that it doesn’t defeat her. She has the strength to let it go, to move on and ask herself: Do I need to talk to this person, or let it go?
So, now the question is how, how do we instill this sense of self into our kids? How do we give them the tools they need? How do we help them build resiliency?
Because that’s where we need to go. This district has been using the word resiliency for years, but it hasn’t put it into action. Now is the time to do that. Now that we are moving into a new strategic plan with a new focus, we can get down to the root causes and we can begin to put into action what has been talked about.
And maybe one place to start is with this quote from one of my favorite authors, Mark Manson: “Curiosity cures: anxiety, ignorance, selfishness, extremism.
Curiosity creates: empathy, compassion, knowledge, growth.
Curiosity prevents: arrogance, judgment, stagnation.
Excerpt from Los Alamos Public Schools Strategic Analysis: CIVIC RESPONSIBILITY
Bullying is also an issue in schools. 77% of middle school students report hearing biased or hateful language at school always, often, or sometimes. Students in Los Alamos are slightly more likely to experience bullying than the statewide average (16.2% for students in Los Alamos versus 13.5% of students statewide).
Students at the middle school in particular report that there is a rise in cyber-bullying.” A really big problem is technology and cyber bullying and people think ‘oh, just cuz they don’t know who I am, that means it’s okay to insult people’ as much as I want cuz no one’s gonna know who I am.” (Middle School Student). The challenge is that often these incidents happen off campus and it is unclear what jurisdiction the district has or even how the district can investigate cyber bullying or enforce consequences.
Sometimes the bullying turns violent. “Like other kids will threaten, send you a text message like ‘we’re gonna jump you after school’.” (Middle School Student). “I have friends who have received messages from people they don’t even recognize the number of telling them that they’re fat or telling them to go kill themselves.” (Middle School Student). Some students are reluctant to report incidents of bullying because they worry about being labeled a “snitch.” Students at both the high school and middle school explain that “there’s a problem if you complain. You are automatically considered a snitch and the other person would be after you.” (Middle School Student).
As with issues around racism, students don’t believe that the adults are doing enough to prevent bullying or provide appropriate consequences for bullying, “There’s like 15 different honor codes. Like first off there’s one just for being a student here. Then there’s one for each club you join or activity you participate in that all say like if you participate in this sort of behavior, you’ll be restricted in some way. But like I haven’t heard a single instance of it actually ever happening.” (High School Student). Other students do report that the adults do something to address the situation, but it isn’t enough. “You could tell them [the adults], but they’ll just write them up. That doesn’t do anything.” (Middle School Student).
While the district has tried to address bullying with assemblies and awareness activities, students don’t think that these activities do enough. “I think in most schools they have like assemblies where they talk about like not bullying, but they don’t necessarily do a lot.” (Middle School Student). Instead, students want the district to take more decisive action.“…you spend more of your time at school. You should feel safe and heard and you should feel like if something, if there’s a problem that somebody’s gonna take care of it for you.”(Middle School Student).
Parents also feel that the district isn’t doing enough to address bullying. “The schools never take it [bullying] seriously. They’ve never done anything to really help or protect my child and it’s just getting worse.” (Parent). Parents acknowledge that the district has made some efforts to stem bullying but they believe that these actions don’t go far enough. “There’s a lot of talk, I think with the schools, you know be kind and anti-bullying week and everything. There’s lots of talk, but there’s no action.” (Parent). As a result, the impression among some parents is that the district efforts focus more on showing students how to deal with bullying rather than taking real steps to end it. “So I hear the word resiliency a lot which really angers me because there’s a difference between like being resilient and then like just putting up with it and just getting through it.” (Parent).
Some staff members agree. “Kids disclose all the time how they experience bullying and racial slurs and the school has done a poor job for sure addressing that…they try to catch it in high school which it honestly needs to start in elementary.” (Instructional Assistant). While the See Something Say Something program has been lauded by students, staff, and families, there are still challenges with the program. For one, students may not always take the program seriously. “I really like our anonymous reporting system See Something Say Something, but I feel like it … it’s become a joke now.” (Middle School Student). Some students do not take it seriously and post false reports on other students. Students mentioned several instances where they reported perceived teacher misbehavior — i.e. teacher bullying, inappropriate behavior, etc.– but feel as if nothing was done to address it.
All these factors lead to students not feeling safe in schools and reveal a growing lack of civility among students.
Los Alamos Public Schools Strategic Analysis | p. 5.13
This is an excerpt from the Strategic Planning Analysis that can be found on the school’s website. If you choose to read the whole analysis you will notice that I am only discussing one aspect of it. I am not ignoring the other pieces. I have read through it many times. I am addressing Bullying today, because it is a topic that has come up a lot recently in various contexts and I have been thinking about it a lot.