In the Horace Good Middle School commons area Tuesday, regional educators, mostly from Garden City, Liberal and Dodge City, sat in and spoke their piece to members of a state task force charged with listening.

The topic: bullying prevention in Kansas schools.

The Kansas State Department of Education’s 35-member Blue Ribbon Task Force on Bullying Prevention, comprised of State Board of Education members, Kansas legislators, educators, mental health specialists and other experts, was formed in March by Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson to research bullying trends and prevention efforts in place across the state.

This December, after traveling to six communities over the coming months, the task force will present its findings and policy recommendations to the State Board of Education, who will then take action to address the problem. On Tuesday, about 10 task force members came to Garden City, the task force’s only scheduled visit to western Kansas.

“That’s the idea of what we’re trying to do with our travels around the state is to give people from different geographical regions in Kansas access to the task force and share their stories,” said James Regier, superintendent of Remington-Whitewater USD 206 and co-chair of the task force.

Beverly Benton of Bright Beginnings Early Childhood Center in Dodge City kicked off the Garden City stop with a lesson on teaching anti-bullying practices as early as preschool. Empathy is uncharted territory for young kids, Benton said — they don’t fully understand how to treat each other, yet, and bullying ensues.

The solution is to fight back early, she said. Empathy and understanding is bred through relationships, so teachers should aim to build relationships with each student. Some preschools have devoted the first 90 days of their curriculum entirely to social-emotional lessons, teaching children how to work with each other and exist in a collaborative world before moving to academics.

Teachers could also stress lessons of resiliency and self-assurance for those bullied and more thoughtful ways of reprimanding bullies that does not reinforce attention-seeking behavior, she said.

“(Bullying) isn’t just that somebody grabbed the ball from me at recess. But do they do that day after day after day and make them fearful? It’s all about power. Control and power. And regardless of the age, the bully gets rewarded for their behavior,” Benton said.

Educators from Liberal — teacher Daniel Minde and assistant principal Kristen Dolen — echoed some of Benton’s points during public comments, emphasizing restorative justice and teacher relationships. With restorative justice, bullies would not simply be suspended, but would have to face the situation they created and have a hand in solving it. Often, parents are the ones that report bullying, Dolen said. Teachers and other district employees building relationships, trust and communication with students may give victims a safe place to turn to on their own, and could give teachers insight into the situations directly, she said.

Minde and Benton also pointed to another aspect of bullying southwest Kansas schools have in common: racially diverse student populations. Students of color or students learning English as a second language are often targeted for being different, Benton said. Understanding that experience is crucial to any conversation about bullying prevention in the state, she said.

“I can’t help but say. There's some missing members of the task force and I don’t know what their background is, necessarily. But the ones here that I see tend to be a little more white....” Benton said. “A lot of the families I work with are from minority groups and they tend to be more the disadvantaged groups and have a lot more barriers to overcome. So while your presence here is extremely valuable … just keep that in mind.”

Adriana Holguin of the Southwest Plains Regional Services Center took hold of the discussion in her segment about the cultural perspective of bullying. As a migrant advocate, Holguin works with students that frequently move, usually due to their parents’ seasonal agriculture jobs. She said she has seen students bullied for anything from their hair to race to economic status.

The size of the group matters when facing that kind of bullying via discrimination, Holguin said. If a student of color is facing a large group hurling insults, they’re not going to stand up for themselves. They know they won’t win.

Students and parents have told Holguin that students make fun of them for the way they look, dress, speak and smell. On top of that, school district staff members sometimes do not understand the difference between a migrant, immigrant and undocumented immigrant, and that confusion or unwillingness to learn can trickle down to the students in harmful ways, Holguin said. The kids will pick up on the labels they hear from adults, and it breeds division and harassment.

The families Holguin works with suggested that schools hold bullies more accountable for their actions and better educate students, staff and parents about bullying itself. Schools should provide more security and counseling resources. Some districts held “porch visits,” where teachers or district employees go door to door to meet parents to build relationships and better understand their lives out of school. Parents greatly appreciate the visits, Holguin said.

The role racial diversity and discrimination plays in bullying is part of the reason the task force was formed, Regier said, and members are open to any suggestions. Jean Clifford, a member on both the state and Garden City USD 457 boards of education, agreed — whatever policy or action the State Board of Education eventually takes, it should appeal to the demographics of every district in the state, she said.

The task force is accepting written testimonies as well as verbal ones. Letters from 12- and 13-year-olds from McPherson asked task force members to consider the impact of bullying in all forms: physical, verbal, emotional or cyber. Schools should be aware of the harm it has to mental health or specific groups, like LGBTQ students, they said. One student noted that bullying could hurt the bullies, leading to issues with alcoholism or further abuse as they grew up. Nearly all of them mentioned the risk of victims committing suicide.

Other letters from a teacher and grandparent pointed to the vulnerability of students with physical, intellectual and learning disabilities, who often become targets to bullies. At the back of task force members’ packets, information from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network noted LGBTQ-friendly anti-bullying legislation and model policies to include and protect transgender and gender nonconforming students.

Ideally, Clifford said, whatever the State Board of Education decided on could alleviate or reduce the bullying all Kansas districts face.

To submit testimony or review documents and presentation materials from other task force sessions, visit the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Bullying Prevention page on the www.ksde.org.

 

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.