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Take Action Today: Where Policy Meets Practice in Making Schools Safer

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Bullying is tough on all kids. A few years back, I had to deal with a situation in a middle school that exemplifies this. There was a young lady who had been called terrible names on the bus for more than a month.  As her frustration and humiliation became too much, she came to school with a stick and assaulted the young man who was bullying her.  As a result, not only did the young man who was bullying her have consequences, but so she did as well because of her reactive actions. It really showed me how complex bullying can be, and the importance of encouraging students to report incidents and of addressing these issues before they escalate. If she had reached out for assistance, instead of suffering in silence then using violence to stop the bullying, there may have been a different outcome.  It’s one of those situations where I wish I had known so that I could have helped.

I don’t want kids to be silent. In fact, as part of a more comprehensive focus on bullying, the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) district in Winona, Minnesota is currently implementing an incident-reporting program to empower students. Each student has a number that they can text to alert the administration anonymously about a bullying incident so that the principal can investigate immediately. Silence is a big challenge that we are working to overcome and communication is key. School staff care and want to prevent bullying. With the help of technology, kids are advocating, reporting and speaking up on behalf of others.

At the elementary school level we have a “Buddy Bench” as part of our broader efforts.  Kids can sit at the bench and a “buddy” can join them if they are feeling lonely and left out.  The students are also encouraged to be advocates for inclusion and reach out to all kids sitting on the Buddy Bench, even if they don’t know them.  Watching kids “be the change” is quite inspiring and frankly, pretty awesome.  

I am proud of the bullying prevention initiatives here in Minnesota.  In 2012, our Governor commissioned a Prevention of School Bullying Task Force. This multi-agency effort called on experts, including those from the Minnesota Department of Health, to examine bullying, harassment and intimidation incidents and policies in Minnesota schools. Based on those findings, the task force developed recommendations for policy initiatives for the Governor and Legislature, resulting in the Safe and Supportive Schools Act.

With Safe and Supportive Schools, the school board, the community and parents are more informed of the official bullying prevention policies of the WAPS - PDF. In addition, every staff member (from teachers to custodians to bus drivers), is trained in bullying prevention strategies and understands how to report an incident. Our strong prevention policy, student reporting system and the Buddy Bench give just a snapshot of what we can do to prevent bullying situations from starting and potentially escalating.

The top priority for any school administrator is protecting students. It is the thing that keeps me awake at night. Preventing bullying supports our commitment to empowering teachers and educators to reach all children.

Free training - PDF and other resources for school administrators - PDF can be found at StopBullying.gov

Dr. Stephen West is a career educator who recently joined the Winona Area Public Schools in Winona, Minnesota as Superintendent. He specializes in education equity issues and works to create positive change for all students in his school district. He speaks on how to actively and practically understand the situations of poverty and the culture surrounding the issues. Dr. West serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota St. Mary’s, in their principals’ administrative specialist degree program.