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  • On the plane, I watched the beginnings of movies. Fifteen hours in an economy seat with too much on my mind made it hard to stay focused for long. I’d get through the first 10 – 15 minutes and switch, until I hit the documentary about bullies and bullying in schools. I watched an assistant principal wander the halls wondering aloud what to do. Watched her talk to anguished kids and ask them what they thought she should do. Watched a father explain he still had to get up each day and do his best to make sure his remaining children had a comfortable life while his eyes looked so very far away. Watched a crew film kids being taunted, hounded, threatened. Watched children stand in front of the camera explaining the torment their days had become and wondered why, why, why.

    I sat back as much as the seat would allow and remembered.

    Remembered art class in seventh grade when I told the teacher Angelo had put another kid’s ceramic work outside the window and he wouldn’t believe I had told but hadn’t said his name. He said he’d find me after school and he did.

    Remembered shop class and Angelo and Carter taking turns hitting me. They watched me closely wondering what it would take to make the chubby white boy cry. Day after day after day.

    Remembered gym class and how I charged Ernest and knocked him down on the pile of blue gymnastic mats just because I could. How I got up looking around to see who had noticed ready to feel strong and tough but inside there was a dirty small lump of grey that wouldn’t go away. And how I avoided him after that in the halls and looked away when he turned to me in algebra because he knew we both had the answer.

    Remembered hockey camp and driving some kid into the boards so he had to be helped off the ice.

    Remembered Camp White Cloud and me a senior and a counselor and shoving the sixth grade kid who whined. Remembered his face crumple as I used him to raise my image with the other kids. Used him to become strong.

    Remembered watching in grade after grade while kids were teased or threatened or shoved. Just watching, detached or removed, or off to one side. Ashamed or relieved and sometimes excited.

    When parents call me about an issue they target the bully. Their outrage is white hot with memory and connection.

    Their labels are secure. All written in permanent marker.

    Their answer is simple.

    Get rid of the bully.

    But the truth is not so simple I think. Bystander, bully and victim, these are fluid roles and we play them all, turn and turn about

    For many years we had a question about bullying on our annual climate survey.

    Parents could mark 1-5 from strongly disagree to strongly agree: There are no problems with bullies or bullying at our school.

    The administrators hated that question. At leadership team meetings we figured there was no way to get it right. Every year as principals came and went, someone would always say, Shouldn’t it really read more like: problems with bullies and bullying are dealt with promptly or effectively or efficiently at our school.

    But if the idea of zero tolerance of bullies and bullying has any real meaning, then I felt the wording made sense. Even if the real world is hard and harsh shouldn’t we strive to create places of refuge, sanctuaries. And shouldn’t a school be such a place.

    We used Morning Circle that year to raise awareness of the dynamics of bullying. We practiced the language of bullying with the kids. Bully, victim, and bystander.

    We role played and practiced asking for help, taking a stand, staying safe, remembering how it felt to be on the other side.

    We tied the effort to our character language, The Big Five; respect, cooperation, friendship, responsibility, and perseverance.

    We gave the kids the language to describe what to expect from one another and the language to begin to understand the roles and dynamics in bullying.

    Awareness has its pitfalls. The first result was that complaints about bullies and bullying went way up.

    But we didn’t stop there.

    We used a simple recognition system based on the Big Five where kids and teachers could give each other stars for showing the Big Five, for taking a stand, for reaching out to a friend. They gave the stars publically at the Morning Circle.

    We recognized kids for a wide variety of achievement and development. The stars went to kids who had shown life-long learning, contributed to the community or followed an individual interest or skill. Kids began to notice one another. To see.

    Culture is built up from connections and conversations and moments of recognition. For a while, we made a school with room for everyone in our circle.

    On the climate survey question about bullies, the school as a whole scored a 2 something, a bit below neutral but my school came close. It was always our lowest score and, on a good year, we hit about 3.8.

    We almost had a community which would agree that there were no problems with bullies at our school. There are few things I am prouder of than that.
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