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Bully-proofing schools: Task force offers advice for new year

One of the downsides of heading back to school is the bullying.

It tends to be pervasive in middle schools. Some of the biggest targets are immigrants or kids with disabilities, or gay or transgender students. School buses can be notorious.

But at least one local district is starting the year with a renewed emphasis on the age-old problem.

For months now, the Buffalo Public Schools have teamed with the juvenile justice system and an array of community partners, all trying to wrap their collective arms around the issue and figure out how best to address bullying.

“I knew we had to do something,” said Erie County Family Court Judge Brenda Freedman. “I don’t know what exactly I hoped for in the beginning, but I knew the issue of bullying was critical to the work of the juvenile justice system because of the number of youth affected by it.”

When Freedman noticed far too many cases coming before the bench with bullying as the recurring, underlying theme, she spearheaded the anti-bullying task force.

Can the courts fix bullying? This judge hopes so.

Representatives from as many as two dozen local partners – parent groups, law enforcement, child protective services, anti-violence organizations – were brought aboard, but the issue struck a chord in the community.

More signed on as word of the task force spread.

“It seemed to resonate throughout the community and people approached us and said they wanted to be involved,” Freedman said.

“We were so surprised," she said. "There was a period of maybe two or three weeks I personally was hearing from several to dozens of people, separately, who were touched by this issue and really were motivated to make a difference.”

The work of the task force began in earnest in January and included a clearer definition of bullying: a form of repeated, unwanted and aggressive behavior that involves a “real or perceived power imbalance” between the bully and the bullied, explained Ben Hilligas, director of the Erie County Youth Bureau.

“Just getting that message out of what bullying really is, so folks can recognize it, is important,” Hilligas said. “There are misconceptions and that lack of clarity causes a lot of confusion and it can be tough to identify.”

By August, the work of the task force culminated in a series of recommendations delivered to the Board of Education in time to consider for the start of a new school year on Friday.

While by no means a cure, the recommendations – some specific, others broad – aim to at least better the lives of thousands of kids.

They include:

• A year-round bullying-prevention committee that can stay on top of trends and promote best practices across city schools.

“The last thing we wanted was to have a bunch of recommendations that sit on the shelf,” said Amanda Nickerson, director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo, “but the only way to continue this is to have a group of people that is sort of responsible to look at this in an ongoing way.”

• Appointing at each school a coordinator – probably a counselor or social worker – familiar with the state law on harassment and bullying to promote training among staff and to educate parents on what action they can take.

“What I hope is that we can open the lines of communication between parents and the schools, because I think right now it’s hit or miss,” said Hope Jay, the North District School Board Member who co-chaired the task force. “I don’t think parents understand the process of how to report this and what they have to do after.”

“If we can do that,” Jay said, “and people’s complaints are being heard and addressed in a uniform way, we can move this work forward.”

• More attention paid to students at higher risk of being bullied.

Among those are immigrants, students with disabilities and students who identify as LGBTQ, the task force found.

“To me, I think the most eye-opening was getting a better understanding of the most vulnerable populations,” Jay said. “We have to look at those students and develop strategies on how to help them.”

The task force also found that while bullying is most pervasive in middle school, there is no systemic bullying-prevention curriculum at those grade levels.

“We still have a problem with students not wanting to report it’s happening and one of the big messages is talking about how it’s OK to bring it up to a trusted adult,” Nickerson said.

“And what I always try to say to students is if it’s not happening to you, but you see or hear about it, please remember what a powerful role you have,” Nickerson said. “You can give them support. You can step in and say ‘Hey, don’t talk to them like that.’ ”

Freedman said she was proud of the job the task force has done, but she hopes its work is not the end – just the beginning.

“It’s not over,” Freedman said. “It’s the ongoing consistency that’s really going to be important in making a difference in the lives of our youth.”

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