The relentless bullying Kevin Jennings endured as a high school freshman nearly brought his academic career to a premature end.
A high school counselor dismissed his complaints as groundless. His mother never learned what was happening until the first day of his sophomore year, when he simply refused to return to school, and he at last revealed his secret torment to her.
Fortunately, Jennings’ mother went to bat for him and didn’t back down. She demanded officials let her son transfer to a different school, which they were reluctant to do. She held him out of classes for a week until school officials relented, and he resumed his education in a new school, where he felt safe and where no more bullying occurred.
Today, Jennings, 47, is the Assistant Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education and director of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. A career educator, he has dedicated his life to ensuring that schools are safe places for young people. As a high school history teacher, he was faculty advisor for the nation’s first Gay-Straight Alliance student club and he founded the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network.
Last Thursday, he presented the keynote address to a group of educators, law enforcement officials and mental health workers gathered for the Colorado Safe Schools regional training in Pueblo. As he spoke, the specter of more than a half-dozen recent youth suicides related to bullying nationwide weighed heavily on the gathered participants.
Conference focuses on multiple threats
Workshops addressed the growing threat of cyberbullying and “sexting,” and ways to measure and improve school climate. Effective suicide prevention and intervention programs were touted, and participants were even tutored in terrorism awareness.
But under it all seemed a growing acknowledgment that violence – either physical or emotional, actual or threatened – is as much a school concern as is math and reading. And that adults are often in the dark about what dangers lurk in young people’s lives and what torment goes on unrecognized and unaddressed.
“Kids can’t learn if they don’t feel safe. Period,” Jennings said. “If kids are unable to focus on school because they are afraid, they will not learn. If my office fails, everything else fails. Forget reading scores, retention rates, graduation rates. None of that matters if you can’t first make the kids feel safe in school.”
“People think if there are no guns and no drugs, it’s a safe school,” he said. “And of course we want that. But that’s the foundation, the floor, not the ceiling. The next step is psychological and emotional safety. If a girl is worried about what’s being written on her locker, or about the boy who is texting her from the back of the room, she can’t focus on learning.”
No shortage of bullies, danger in Colorado
Colorado ranks roughly in the middle of the states in school climate factors that are related to safety. According to the recent Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance 2009, a national study released in June by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 7 percent of Colorado students say they are afraid to go to school, the 29th highest percentage among states, Jennings reported.
More than 5 percent of Colorado high school students report carrying a weapon to school with them, 8 percent report being threatened with a weapon while at school, nearly 11 percent report getting into a fight on school grounds and almost 20 percent report being bullied while at school.
The reasons for bullying vary, but the most often cited factor is physical appearance. That’s followed by the perception that a young person is gay, or by how masculine or feminine the student appears to be. Disabilities, race or ethnicity, lack of wealth and religion are much less often reasons for bullying.
“But not everybody gets bullied equally,” Jennings said. “A kid who is physically disabled is about one and a half times more likely to get bullied than a kid who is not. But a kid with autism is about six times more likely to be bullied. So the kids most vulnerable are those with emotional disabilities.”
Bullying affects more than just the victims, Jennings said. Witnesses to bullying – and that’s just about everybody – don’t walk away unscathed. About a quarter of youthful witnesses to bullying will actively urge on the bully. Another quarter, while not actively assisting the bully, will reinforce the bullying behavior by snickering or smiling. Another quarter will walk away and refuse to become involved one way or the other. And about a quarter will intervene, coming to the defense of the victim.
When other youngsters do intervene, most often the bullying stops within a few seconds, Jennings said. But that happens less than 20 percent of the time. About 80 percent of the time, no one intervenes, he said.
“We need to quit separating people into categories of ‘bullies’ and ‘victims’,” he said. “Some kids are both victims and witnesses. And some are victims, witnesses and bullies themselves. We have a tendency to say there are just a few bad kids. But it’s so much more than that. Kids play multiple roles. It’s the behavior we need to focus on, not finding the bad kids.”
“This is something a lot of kids are really scared about,” Jennings said. “Parents want to know that we know what to do about this. And in fact, we do.”
Scaring kids doesn’t work
What works usually is no surprise, said Del Elliott, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who updated participants on what evidence-based programs are worth investing in. What’s really surprising, he said, is what doesn’t work.
“Programs based on scare tactics do not work,” Elliott said. Boot camps, gun buybacks, DARE, peer counseling programs, summer job programs – none are effective. And some, such as the “Scared Straight” program that placed at-risk teens into locked prison cells alongside felons, actually make things worse, he said.
What does work are long-term, multiple-year programs that include life skills training, he said. Such programs provide young people with the strategies and skills they need to confront a variety of situations, and to cope with things they couldn’t cope with before. “There are no quick fixes, no silver bullets,” Elliott said. “You can’t talk with someone for an hour and change the course of their life. To change a life that involves a lot of dysfunction and anti-social behavior takes a lot of intense intervention.”
Beyond that, there are steps every school, every teacher, every parent and every student can and should take, Jennings said.
“Every school needs to educate faculty and staff,” he said. “Not just faculty. A lot of bullying goes on one buses and playgrounds and lunchrooms. And kids pick different adults they feel comfortable talking to. At my school, the lunch lady heard things no teacher ever heard.”
Jennings said schools need policies that make it clear that no form of bullying will be tolerated, and staff must be held responsible for taking action every time they see something. “In one survey we found that one in four students had heard a teacher use the word ‘faggot’ in school,” Jennings said. “We need to call them on that.”
Parents need to hold schools accountable for taking meaningful action, he said. “If you don’t believe your kid will be safe, take your kid out of that school,” he said, citing his own long-ago experiences. “I was this close to being a drop-out, if it hadn’t been for my mother going down to school and insisting on my behalf.”
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Many children, particularly boys and older children, will not admit to parents or other adults if they’re being bullied. Parents should be vigilant for any possible signs of bullying. Such signs may include:
- Coming home with torn, damaged or missing pieces of clothing, books or other belongings.
- Unexplained cuts, bruises and scratches.
- Few, if any friends.
- Fear of going to school, walking to and from school, riding the school bus or taking part in organized school activities.
- Long, “illogical” routes when walking to or from school.
- Loss of interest in school work, or a sudden drop in grades.
- Sadness, moodiness, tears or depression at home.
- Frequent complaints of headaches, stomach aches or other physical ailments.
- Loss of appetite.
- Anxiety and low self-esteem
Source: HRSA “Stop Bullying Now!”