Sean Slade

Reflections on the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention

Last week I was part of the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention.

Now, it's true that people hear and pick up what interests them or what sparks their memory, but my takeaways were very whole child. Just like the summaries from the Department of Education's Bullying Prevention Summit held in August, terms like school climate, school-community collaboration, systemic approach, and baseline of care were key and prevalent.

Having the president host this conference and introduce it along with the first lady via YouTube was invaluable for spreading the word about and awareness of bullying. What was his key message? That bullying cannot be considered "normative." That in order to change a school's culture, we need to change the underlying assumption that these actions and behaviors are tolerable or even expected.

Culture matters.

Both panelists, Katherine Bradshaw, associate professor from Johns Hopkins University, and George Sugai, Neag Endowed chair and professor at the University of Connecticut, expanded on this, outlining that tackling behavior, including bullying behavior, starts with a holistic approach to addressing school climate as opposed to only implementing programs or stop-gap one-off assemblies. What prevents bullying behavior? A climate where it isn’t acceptable. These climates focus on the development of relationships and support networks, and see classrooms as—borrowing a phrase from Associate Professor Philip Rodkin from the University of Illinois—a "community of 30."

School climate matters.

There was little talk about developing new laws, expanding zero tolerance regulations, or debating new ways to restrict or corral student behavior or actions. Instead there was a lot of talk about expanding the role of the school; expanding responsibility; and expanding the links among schools-families, schools-agencies, and school-communities. The bullying issue in particular was seen as one that requires more and not less collaboration between and across the whole school-community. School doors need to be figuratively (and possibly literally) opened to tackle an issue that affects the whole community.

School-community collaboration matters.

It was also widely accepted that relying on programs or curricula to fix the issue was fool's gold. An effective curriculum can help promote or spark the need for a change in culture, climate, or school-community collaboration, but there is little evidence to demonstrate that programs do much without focused attention on the foundations of how the school runs and operates. Attention is required on the policies and practices, as well as the overarching mission of the school.

Systemic change matters.

And finally—summed up by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—safety matters. If a school is to be a place where students want to go to, a place that promotes self-awareness, self-efficacy, and allows for individual growth and development socially, emotionally, and cognitively, it needs to be a place where everyone feels safe. It needs to provide a baseline of care to everyone that enters its doors or passes through its corridors.

"No school can be a great school until it is first a safe school."

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