On Unity Day, a new guide to fight bullying

As a child growing up with cerebral palsy, I remember what it was like to be bullied. Classmates pointed and stared at my awkward gate. Children and parents, whether out of fear or misunderstanding, said deeply hurtful things to me. It’s hard—being different.

I persevered for one reason: because of my friends—a core support system of classmates, coaches and teachers who were empathetic to the challenges I faced, who got to know me for me, and not for the surface physical differences between us.

October is National Bullying Awareness Month—and that’s good. Because we, as educators and community leaders, are in desperate need of some introspection on the topic. Across the country, students are struggling to overcome the sting and hurt of mental and physical abuse.

Our schools are supposed to be sanctuaries, safe havens where children are empowered to learn and grow and achieve uncommon success in spite of personal struggle. But when statistics tell us that nearly one in four children has been bullied in school or that 64 percent of schoolchildren who are bullied do not report the incident to a parent or educator out of fear, we know our schools are in need of a serious course correction.

Time to make change

That work starts with teaching students and parents and teachers to be kind to one another. As Rob Ellis, founder and chief executive of the national advocacy group Stomp Out Bullying poignantly reminds us, “If children are not taught empathy, then bullying will continue to be pervasive in our schools.”

To help in the fight against bullying, we recently released The School Leader’s Definitive Guide to Bullying Prevention.

In this brief guide, you’ll learn:

  • How school districts in states such as New York and South Carolina are amplifying student voice and feedback to beat back bullying in their local communities.
  • Signs to watch for when students feel threatened or are at risk of being bullied.
  • Practical solutions to help you systematically eradicate the plague of physical and verbal abuse in your schools.

It’s no coincidence that we chose to release the guide on Unity Day 2016. On this day, schools across the country stand together (in orange) to conquer bullying with kindness and inclusion. We hope this guide helps in that fight.

Let’s band to together to stop bullying this day—and every day. Are you with me?

Get The School Leader’s Definitive Guide to Bullying Prevention.

Battling the ‘creepy clown’ frenzy in schools

NOTE: You can also find this article on our new and improved blog, TrustED. You’ll get the same great content and more in an all-new, easy-to-navigate format. TrustED: News and solutions school leaders can actually use.

It sounds like the plot of a B-rated horror movie.

In the run up to Halloween, people dressed as creepy clowns stalk small-town streets and threaten children and families. Schools receive online threats of violence from people purporting to be clowns. And police work to tamp down the frenzy before it envelopes their worried community.

Except, if you’ve been watching the news lately, you know this isn’t a movie. It’s happening.

Since August, when the first clown sightings were reported in South Carolina, there have been more than 100 clown sightings or threats made by people dressed as clowns across the United States. The offbeat social news site Atlas Obscura made an interactive map to track the phenomena in real time. Really.

Recent reports have spread beyond the United States to Canada and Europe.

While the vast majority of clown-related threats have been exposed as hoaxes, people dressed as clowns have been captured on video stalking houses and cemeteries and several arrests have been made for direct threats against citizens and schools, according to NBC News.

As absurd and not funny as this all seems, schools throughout the country are working to keep students protected from threats, both real and perceived.

The creepy clown epidemic makes for a good headline—and some people might think it’s overblown. But the attention presents a great opportunity to evaluate student and campus security. Here’s three things every school leader should do to keep students and teachers safe from outside threats.

Take threats seriously
No matter if it’s a student prank or something worse, assume every threat is real until proven otherwise.

Instances of clown threats against schools have run the gamut from texts to phone calls to social media posts.

Others instances have been more sinister.

Esquire reports that an Ohio woman was grabbed on her porch by a man in a clown costume. The man told the woman that attacks on local schools were imminent. Schools were closed the next day as a precaution.

Schools who’ve dealt with the phenomenon have had to walk a fine line between overblowing what might seem to some like a childish prank and seriously vetting potentially serious credible threats.

At Manassas City Public Schools (MCPS) in Virginia, administrators recently fielded concerns from parents on both sides of the debate. Some felt the district was taking the threats too seriously. Others said they appreciated the district’s diligence in investigating and communicating about the problem.

“We thought it was better to err on the side of too much information,” Almeta Radford, director of public communications at MCPS told TrustED.

The district sent social media, phone, and email messages along with letters updating parents and students on the situation and the district’s actions moving forward.

When you face a potential threat, even if it sounds absurd, don’t rule out the possibility of school delays or closures. Make sure your community understands the threat, your rationale for closing your schools, and your plan for dealing with threats moving forward.

Support students and families
The creepy clown phenomenon plays on a real fear of many children (and adults).

In Manassas City, Radford tells TrustED, “Students were coming in very anxious from middle school and down. There was a lot of anxiety with the students.”

When facing a potential threat in your schools, do you provide counseling and psychological support for students and staff?

Can you identify ways to use thwarted pranks and headline news stories as teachable moments?

Sarasota County School District in Florida recently offered counseling opportunities for all students after a series of prank clown threats against local schools there.

“We were trying to assure parents that there was no real threat from the clown issue that’s been happening,” district communications specialist Scott Ferguson told Your Observer. “We just wanted them to talk to their students and say that what kids do on social media does matter.”

Prevent frenzy through engagement
With so many clown sightings throughout the country, districts are looking for ways to prevent unnecessary panic.

Nothing stirs a frenzy like poor communication.

Before, during, and after these incidents, make sure your community understands your planning and what steps you are taking to improve safety and satisfy public concern.

Let community members vent if they need to and provide feedback on your approach. Stomp out unsubstantiated rumors on social media and elsewhere by keeping community members informed and engaged.

Have you dealt with creepy clown threats in your schools this fall? Share your stories in the comments.

Don’t let pranks turn into controversies. Here’s one way to help encourage authentic two-way communication in your schools.

The link between school climate and bullying

NOTE: You can also find this article on our new and improved blog, TrustED. You’ll get the same great content and more in an all-new, easy-to-navigate format. TrustED: News and solutions school leaders can actually use.

Every school leader knows how detrimental bullying is to the learning environment.

Emotive conversations on social media and in our classrooms are clear evidence that awareness campaigns, such as National Bullying Prevention Month (happening now), are vital to efforts to make schools safer and stronger.

When a student is harassed or belittled, be it in school or online, that abuse not only affects their personal outlook, it also often impacts the climate of the entire school or school district.

Often a poor school environment becomes a breeding ground for bullying and other safety and discipline challenges.

The key to making schools safer, starts with empowering students to embrace a strong sense of personal identity, posits Becki Cohn-Vargas, director of the anti-bullying group Not In Our Schools, in Edutopia.

Cohn-Vargas recommends creating an identity safe environment for students—basically, a place where all students feel welcomed and empowered to engage in learning and social activities in schools, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

It sounds like common sense. But the reality in a lot of schools is that students do not feel empowered, whether out of fear or some other reason.

Several school districts have great systems for dealing with bullying incidents once they’ve happened. The difference is that an identity-safe approach helps prevent incidents from even starting, writes Cohn-Vargas:

If bullying is handled only at the disciplinary level, underlying biases and attitudes about the kids who are perceived as different persist. Getting to a deeper level that truly leads to change goes beyond a bullying assembly, specific lessons, or disciplinary practices in response to bullying. It requires looking at the whole school environment.

So how do you transform your school into one that fosters inclusion and empowers personal identity?

Cohn-Vargas outlines four tips to transform your school climate to prevent bullying before it starts:

Make identity safety part of your curriculum
Encouraging inclusion should be an integral part of your educational philosophy.

“Foster identity safety in an environment of respect, empathy, and kindness by modeling it all day long through classroom and school-wide learning activities,” writes Cohn-Vargas.

This goes well beyond the occasional student assembly or guidance meeting. Schools need to engage students every day through revamped lesson plans, and collaborative decision-making. Faculty need to be specially trained and encouraged to foster that engagement.

Talk about the issues that divide students
No one likes a controversy, and tackling the hairy issue of student identity does not always make for an easy conversation. But real talk is the only way to root out the underlying issues that allow bullying and other forms of abuse to fester.

When students understand the experiences and struggles of their classmates, they’re much more likely to show empathy, says Cohn-Vargas.

Go beyond simple discipline
There will always be bullies in schools.

Your goal should be to discourage abusive behavior, to root it out, and teach against it.

What support do you provide students after they’ve been bullied? What kind of interventions besides punishment do you offer to bullies? Do you engage these students  in discussions about bad behavior and choices in school? Do you have any program to help students report and advocate against bullying or abusive behavior in school or online?

If you answered no to any of these questions, it’s time to rethink your approach.

Empower student voice
A positive school culture is a tough match for most bullies.

Giving students a platform to express themselves and their concerns encourages them to take ownership of their educations, inspires them to engage in school-related discussions, and equips them to stand up to bullying when it happens to them or to their friends.

How do you encourage students to express their identity and engage in school decision-making? Tell us in the comments.

Looking for ways to assess your school climate and make sure it’s working for everyone?  Don’t miss tomorrow’s webinar Making Feedback Matter: How School Climate Affects School Quality. Space is limited, so sign up now!

Rethinking school anti-bullying campaigns

Did you notice a sea of blue shirts roaming your hallways this morning?

Today is Blue Shirt Day® World Day of Bullying Prevention™, STOMP Out Bullying’s international day for recognizing, addressing, and preventing bullying.

Maybe you organized full-fledged Blue Shirt Day rallies or contests in your schools. Maybe you initiated candid discussions about why bullying occurs in your school.

Whatever your approach, today is a time to reflect on an issue plaguing nearly one in three American school children. It’s also a time to develop solutions.

If you’re looking for ideas, a recent study from researchers at Princeton, Yale, and Rutgers sheds new light on the anatomy of bullying, as a recent Ed Week article outlines.

The main takeaway? Peer pressure helps prevent the phenomenon as much as it causes it.

Identifying the influencers
In a survey of more than 24,000 middle schoolers, researchers found that the most influential students were not necessarily the traditional “popular” kids.

“Adult-identified leaders are often very different from student-identified leaders,” Hana Shepherd, an assistant sociology professor at Rutgers University, told Ed Week. “Adults look at traditionally defined ‘popular’ kids, the ‘good’ kids, while kids who are leaders of smaller groups might not be on the social radar of adults, but often are [influential] too.”

The research also attributed bullying to a culture of retribution and harassment among the majority of students in a school, rather than just isolated instances by stereotypical “bad apples.”

But researchers warn that this reframing of bullying—and the social roles of students—may render traditional anti-bullying tactics ineffective.

Spreading the roots
Researchers used the survey results to map the social networks of the students in each school, identifying students who had influence across several peer groups.

Half of these so-called “seed” students were then invited to discuss the causes of bullying and ways to prevent it.

The Roots program, as the researchers named it, allows influential students to engage one another in an open, honest dialogue—not about bullying specifically, but about ways to reduce general conflict or “drama” in their schools.

Students then worked on their own creative projects to influence their peers. Those projects included creating positive, anti-bullying GIFs and developing reward systems for students who reduced conflict in their classrooms.

“We treated students as politicians, campaigning for a better school,” researcher Elizabeth L. Paluck told Ed Week. “The theory was that their public behaviors and statements could change norms.”

And the effort appears to have worked.

In schools with the Roots program, disciplinary incidents fell by nearly 20 percent. In schools where at least one-fifth of influential students participated in the program, reports of discipline issues decreased by 60 percent.

Re-thinking your approach
The results of the Roots program suggest that traditional anti-bullying programs may be outdated in this time of shifting social norms and communication methods.

If you’re planning a new program to combat harassment, consider digging deeper into your school’s social networks to identify the real student influencers. And make sure you keep student engagement at the heart of everything you do.

Today isn’t only Blue Shirt Day®, it’s also the kickoff to anti-bullying month nationwide. Throughout October, we’ll continue to touch on important bullying issues facing schools.

And keep an eye out for our guide for school leaders on bullying prevention.

Betting the farm on school lunch

Today, millions of K12 students will eat meals provided by their local schools.

For many students, especially those from families of lesser means, school-provided meals constitute the only reliable source of daily recommended nutrition they receive all day. For fewer still, school-provided lunches provide their only source of daily food at all.

More than half of U.S. students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to a report in the Washington Post, making school lunch programs essential to the health and well-being of America’s K12 students.

Preparing and serving  daily meals to students and teachers is a tremendous undertaking–and one that is often, regrettably, taken for granted.

A complex to-do list that includes menu creation, materials ordering, food prep, nutritional guidelines and serving procedures, creates headaches for even the most veteran of food service professionals.

Increasingly, schools are exploring the benefits of the “farm-to-school” movement as a means to reduce the logistical hurdles that plague many school breakfast and lunch programs.

In an effort to cut costs, save time, and reinvest in local communities, a growing contingent of school leaders are advocating for the use of locally grown and sourced ingredients in school meals. And the benefits are clear, according to a census report from the USDA.

A closer look at the numbers
More than 5,000 school districts participate in farm-to-school food service programs, according to the USDA report, accounting for more than 40 percent of the districts that participated in the survey.

The shift has amounted to a boon for local farms and other businesses.

During the 2013-2014 school year alone, schools purchased nearly $790 million in local goods. That’s a 105 percent increase in local investment compared with the 2011-2012 school year, according to the USDA report.

“We work with over 10 different local farms,” one respondent from a district in Washington state said in the report. “We want to support local and know who is growing our food.”

The future of farm to school
According to the census, 16 percent of surveyed schools plan on starting farm-to-school programs in the next year. Of those that already have such programs, nearly half expect to increase activity.

It’s worth noting, of course, that the USDA offers grants to participating farm-to-school districts.

The grant program was created under the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the most recent reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which sets standards and funding for school lunch and breakfast programs.

The 2010 law met its fair share of backlash from the food industry and many school district leaders, who called for less stringent nutritional guidelines, as this Washington Post article explains.

School lunch debates reflect broader political conversations about the role of government in family and community-based decisions.

No matter on what side of the school lunch debate you stand, you can bet that parents and students have opinions. As you make decisions about food service in your schools, make sure your community has an opportunity to weigh in.

Is your school district doing everything it can to ensure students have access to quality, affordable school-based meals? Are you currently engaged in a farm-to-school meal program in your school or district? Tell us in the comments.

Want to know what your community thinks about your school meal programs? This simple tool can help you solicit helpful feedback.

In wake of tragedy, schools must help students cope

In recognition of National Suicide Prevention Week, this is the third in a series of posts on preventing and coping with student suicide. For more information on National Suicide Prevention Week, follow the hashtag


For those who’ve never experienced it, the shock that accompanies the sudden passing of a friend or loved one is unthinkable.

When death comes in the form of suicide, the shock for family and classmates can be overwhelming.

“Many survivors of suicide loss relate the same experience as mine: their loved one’s death by suicide was entirely unexpected.” writes Alyssa Relyea, who lost her twin brother to suicide, on the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s blog.

Relyea has since become an advocate for suicide awareness, teaching others how to look for and spot suicide warning signs. She’s learned to live with the memory of tragedy. But years later, she admits the feeling is still raw.

Unfortunately, Relyea is not alone. Across the country, thousands of teens are forced to confront the harsh reality of suicide every year.

Add the weight of unthinkable personal grief to the social and academic pressures of high school—and the feelings can be overwhelming.

Schools play an important role in helping students deal with and work through tragedy, especially when the victim is a classmate.

With this in mind, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) created a toolkit for school administrators that features tools and resources to help students cope in the aftermath of a suicide.

As we close out this week of remembrance and awareness, the guide’s tips for helping students cope with the tragedy of suicide continue to resonate.

Here’s a few key points of advice for helping students cope with tragedy, courtesy of the guide:

Give students immediate, individual attention.
In the wake of a teen suicide or other tragedy, it’s important for schools to immediately and vocally offer students access to emotional and psychological support.

Meeting one-on-one or in small groups allows teachers and staff to give students the intimate attention they need—and to provide additional help for those especially affected.

The AFSP and SPRC recommend that these initial sessions focus on providing students with strategies for dealing with their grief and giving them time and safe space to express their feelings and emotions.

Provide students practical ways to cope.
Schools should equip students with adoptable strategies to help deal with stress and loss. These might include:

  • Breathing and counting exercises—think count to 10 slowly, or deep breathing.
  • The pursuit of hobbies, such as music, reading, sports, or exercise as coping mechanisms.
  • Writing a list of hopes for the future to focus on moving forward.
  • Strengthening bonds with friends and family and improving personal communication skills.

Help parents support their kids.
When it come to tragedy, most parents are just as inexperienced. As educators and counselors, you can help parents support their children outside of school.

Provide guidance on coping best practices. Invite parents to discuss these issues with grief counselors or teachers. Give community members a forum for venting their own concerns and personal grief, whether through in-person meetings or as part of some kind of online forum.

And make sure parents and guardians understand and are aware of the support offered to students through the school.

Acknowledge milestones and anniversaries.
Students will be especially susceptible to grief on certain dates throughout the year, particularly those dates that mark a birthday or anniversary of a loss.

Whether it’s the student’s birthday, anniversary of their passing, or some other important marker, don’t be afraid to acknowledge and celebrate that student’s memory. And make a point to offer support and be extra vigilant on these days.

Help students express their emotions.
If you do nothing else, make a point of being there for your students when and where they need help.

“Youth will vary widely in terms of emotional expression,” write the toolkit’s authors. “Some may become openly emotional, others may be reluctant to talk at all, and still others may use humor. Acknowledge the breadth of feelings and diversity of experiences and emphasize the importance of being respectful of others.”

Give students every opportunity to vent their frustrations.

Nobody wants to confront these sudden tragedies. They are horrible and often painful. Sadly, they‘ve also become a reality for far too many students and families.

What steps does your school or district take to provide support and counseling when it is needed most?

As we close out the week, take a look back at the other posts in this series (Wednesday and Thursday) for ways to lead in times of untimely loss and grief in your school community.