When you turn on the news or log in to Twitter, it sometimes seems that abusive behavior and bullying has hit a new level in America. The question is, has it, or does it just feel that way?
There’s some truth to both, according to Dr. Karen Dickinson, School Counseling Program coordinator at West Chester (Pennsylvania) University. In the post-Columbine era of school shootings, there has been a heightened focus by society, the government and the media on violence and threats in schools that makes these incidents feel more pervasive than ever, she said. But the current political climate has also brought to light pockets in the U.S. where discrimination against marginalized communities has long been strong, but wasn’t previously visible or discussed.
In her capacity as an educator, Dickinson is training the professionals who are often at the front lines in the struggle against school bullying – the counselors who help guide students through these emotionally delicate situations. And as a researcher, she has been focused on how marginalized communities are being treated within a roughly 100-mile radius of her campus in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Among her findings, students who are immigrants, refugees or come from non-English speaking families are facing tough times in American schools. Students with disabilities have long been prime targets of bullying behavior, but even they are now benefiting from 40 years’ worth of advocacy that has pushed people to understand that picking on those kids is crossing a terrible line.
“Adults and other people are more apt to notice [mistreatment of students with disabilities] more, be aware and have some prevention strategies in place already,” Dickinson said. “Those other populations who don’t have as much law behind them, who have a lot of controversy around them in the United States right now, they’re probably the students who’ve endured the most negative talk and negative incidents.”
One of the keys for schools to alleviate these problems, she said, is to offer a means for students to report incidents without fear of reprisal. She stressed that “’anonymously’ is the magic word,” whether the system is a simple way to leave a note in a counselor’s mailbox, a dedicated email account or an app like STOPit.
“Anything you can do, whether it’s hand-written or online, does make a difference,” she said. “They just have to be aware of what it is.”
STOPit’s success has hinged in large part on the fact that it is a truly anonymous system. Users who report incidents are assigned a unique code that lets administrators know that multiple messages or reports are coming from the same source, but not who is actually on the other end of the line. The guaranteed secrecy has proven to be instrumental for building trust among the student bodies who use STOPit.
The app is currently available in English, Spanish, French, and Japanese, allowing students of many ethnic backgrounds to communicate confidently in their own native language. Additional languages can be added based on the needs of school districts.
Another group that continues to endure outsized levels of abuse are those with invisible disabilities – mental health issues like ADHD, anxiety and depression. These students have the added disadvantage of looking just like everyone else, so their peers can’t recognize or empathize with their struggles. As a result, students with mental illnesses often hide their problems, which has caused a spike in the suicide rate, Dickinson said.
“They may not perceive things the way they were intended to be,” she said. “They may be more paranoid. They may take things more sensitively, and so that feels like they’re being picked on more.”
Dickinson believes the best defense to protect children in marginalized groups being bullied is for parents to lead by example. It is more important than ever for kids’ everyday role models to lead their lives as an example they would want their kids to emulate, she said.
“The more that children or adolescents see adults doing what might be compromise, or what might be a good way to say ‘I disagree with you,’ and the less they see others’ bad behaviors, I think that would be a huge help. Whether it be on social media, whether it’s in real life or on the news, they need to see it.”
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