By Robert Schroeder
“There is a disconnect between what young people think they are intending or engaging in and the consequences to other people in the environment.”
What is one trend that can be applied to every classroom in the country, whether urban or rural, well-funded or scraping by, high-achieving or bottom of the barrel? It’s a disturbing trend—according to the Center for Disease Control, every classroom in the United States includes a student who has skipped school because they felt unsafe.
At the College of Education, students and faculty are engaged in an ongoing project with the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance to determine the most effective methods for schools to cultivate environments free of harassment. Project Safe SPACES (Social Pressues, Attitudes, Culture and Experiences about Sexuality), in its fourth year at the College, investigates why young people harass each other because of gender or sexuality , seeks to build more supportive school cultures and examines parent beliefs about schools’ approaches to gender and sexuality.
“We need to create spaces where young people can have conversations in supportive and really meaningful ways,” said Stacey Horn, PhD, professor of educational psychology and the project’s primary investigator. “Zero tolerance doesn’t really help; if we need to help young people figure out this conversation, zero tolerance basically stops the conversation.”
The project works directly with schools to assess bullying issues and provide solutions. A biased-based bullying survey allows schools to determine how students bully and harass each other, whether youth feel comfortable reporting behavior to adults and the success of ongoing interventions. With the Prevent School Violence Illinois Coalition, the project is engaged in a public health campaign to provide schools with baseline data of bullying.
At Elm Middle School in Oak Park, Ill., principal Kathleen Porreca says her students are at an age at which they are grappling with a host of developmental issues through which gender-based bullying can be a complicating factor. Porreca and her staff engaged with Horn and Project Safe SPACES to complete the bullying survey, with surprising results. Nearly all students at the school agreed that bullying and harassment are wrong and unacceptable in school, but students perceived teacher intervention in bullying situations to be infrequent. Porreca said some teachers were so surprised at students’ perceptions they initially did not believe the results.
“A lot of the behavior is happening stealthily, when adults are not present,” Porreca (above, middle) said. “We’ve been talking to teachers about how we can be more explicit about the fact that adults are here to help prevent behavior or address it when it happens. In talking to kids about a positive school culture, we need to be more explicit and adamant about that.”
Students who have participated in focus groups led by Project Safe SACES seem to demonstrate a capacity to think more deeply about the ingrained culture of bullying. Katie Romeo, PhD Human Development candidate at the College of Education, leads focus group discussions and says many students are engaging with their peers in a conversation about harassment for the first time.
“Through dialogue, they realize that they may be making an error and they check themselves on it,” Romeo said. “A lot of times when they are engaging in [bullying], it’s just kind of normal, something you do, without having a lot of opportunities to think about whether or not it’s wrong or what the consequences might be of those actions.”
As Project Safe SPACES continues in its fourth year, Horn’s team is working on developing tools and strategies for schools to use to assess bullying within the context of each unique school environment. Horn says school leaders and educators need to realize that students and parents want to engage as allies in addressing bullying and that the two groups should collaborate to start creating spaces in school for these conversations to take place. Surveys have confirmed huge majorities of parents in Illinois, regardless of geographic region or religious or political affiliation support schools talking about gender or sexuality-based harassment.
“We want all young people to be in school, and we want them to be able to thrive there,” Horn said.