The Winchester Coalition for a Safer Community has launched a study aimed at understanding how bullying is perceived by the community. Recent legislation, prompted by the widely reported suicides of two children brought on by relentless bullying, was approved on May 3.
The new law requires school districts to implement a "Bullying Prevention & Intervention Plan" by the end of the year. The Coalition has undertaken a "brainstorming" effort this summer to better understand local attitudes.
Utilizing online anonymous technology, individuals throughout Winchester have been asked to respond to the following prompt:
One thing that Winchester families, schools and community groups should do to prevent bullying by children, teens and adults is . . .
In addition to the online collection of data, the Coalition has also hosted live "brainstorming" events using the same prompt.
Close to 300 individual responses, as indicated by unique computer identification numbers, indicate a fascinating variety of ideas and definitions of "bullying." A clear lack of community consensus as to what constitutes bullying behavior is evident.
"There is not agreement in Winchester as to what bullying is" asserts Elizabeth Silva, Director of the Coalition.
The new law defines bullying, as the repeated use by one or more students of a written, verbal or electronic expression or a physical act or gesture or any combination thereof, directed at a victim that: (i) causes physical or emotional harm to the victim or damage to the victim's property; (ii) places the victim in reasonable fear of harm to himself or of damage to his property; (iii) creates a hostile environment at school for the victim; (iv) infringes on the rights of the victim at school; or (v) materially and substantially disrupts the education process or the orderly operation of a school. For the purposes of this section, bullying shall include cyber-bullying" (use of electronic communication equipment).
Online anonymous community response indicates that bullying exists well beyond the school's boundaries. "Adults must be aware of what they are saying to each other in the presence of children. Children will mimic the gossiping. . .that the adults do in this highly competitive town." "Model respect for different ideas, opinions and lifestyles at home and in the community." "Kids emulate their parents and then the adults around them. It's discouraging to read that coaches are part of the problem." "Winchester must work toward acceptance and appreciation of differences — this includes not only the teachers but all adults in town." "Children learn behavior from the adults around them and will 'push the envelope' in school. If the administration . . . continues to ignore bullying it will escalate. Communicate our expectations and hold the adults accountable."
Ideas offered anonymously to help prevent bullying include:
"Start with the adults, so they can better educate their children. Have schools actively call parents when incidents occur so that they know what is happening." "Strong, moral, accountable leadership is the first step for any other program or policy to take shape." "Rules and identified consequences should be made so that everyone is on the same page." "Provide victims with defensive physical and emotional techniques." "Provide parents with educational materials to identify and deal with bullying — from both the perspective of the bully and the target—so that we can march lock-step with educators and know where the line is between normal and aggressive behavior." "Ensure that teachers are trained and willing to identify bullying as it occurs." "Teach respect for human differences (racial, ethnic, physical ability, sexual orientation, etc.)"
Responses from the community within this anonymous forum indicate that sometimes the line between bully and victim is not clear. "Children are often bullied into becoming bullies." "Kids who bully need love too, they shouldn't be treated like an outcast; they may already feel that way to begin with." "I'm not in favor of bullying, but I'm not in favor of kicking a bully out of school or turning it into a legal matter. The world is a tough place and kids need to learn how to deal with negative interactions socially and emotionally."
On a parallel timetable, the school district is working on forming policy.
"We're working with the Winchester Coalition to get parent and community input into how to better handle bullying. They're in the middle of an online mapping process and we're going to use the data they collect from the process in order to help us in formulating policy" said Superintendent William McAlduff.
The Superintendent is already working on a minimum draft policy based on different recommendations from different state associations. The interim policy will directly reflect the new law.
McAlduff is in the midst of forming a "Bullying Task Force" comprised of school district and community members to create the final policy. He anticipates issuing an open call for volunteers prior to the beginning of the school year. Additional input from existing efforts including the High School Student Leadership Initiative, Focus on the Future and curriculum studies will also be included.
The Winchester Coalition for a Safer Community is made up of a wide representation from the School District, Police & Fire Departments, Winchester Hospital, Parent to Parent, Parent/Faculty Associations, Interfaith Council, and other community organizations. The Coalition hopes to continue its work after its current federal funding expires at the end of September.