Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bullying: Moving from Exposure to Elimination

Last year, several high-profile bullying incidents led children to consider or commit suicide, including the Baltimore City girl who made the news after she tried to jump out of her elementary school window.

Since then, there has been a major push to expose this serious issue, highlighted by a “Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week” in Maryland last May and the designation of October as National Bullying Prevention Month. On our Facebook page, we have linked to a photo of Maryland’s First Lady (who also volunteers as a Truancy Court Program judge) speaking about bullying.

Recently, the Baltimore Sun featured an article on its front page showing the positive effects of this exposure, as well as the pervasiveness of bullying. Reports of bullying incidents more than doubled in Maryland. Officials attributed this increase to greater sensitivity to and reporting of incidents that were previously shrugged off as “kids being kids.” For example, reporting in Baltimore City increased from 231 reports of bullying two years ago to 541 last year, a 150% increase. State-wide, 3,800 reports of bullying were made last year, an increase of more than 2,000 reports from the previous year.

The Truancy Court Program (TCP) has tackled a number of bullying incidents, as well as the rise of cyber-bullying and the impact of Facebook. We have seen students refuse to attend school because of a compromising picture of them that was posted on Facebook, and we have seen the pain they feel when placed back with their peers.

We at CFCC hope that the spotlight will remain on this important issue and on approaches that identify and curb bullying. Some TCP schools have established “circles,” where a small group of students work with a guidance counselor or social worker to talk about their interpersonal dynamics when they appear unhealthy. Other programs, like the TCP, can help uncover and address bullying when a red flag is raised by attendance or academic problems.

It is important to advocate for and enforce strong anti-bullying policies within schools and disseminate best practices widely so that all teachers, administrators, peers, community members, and parents are equipped to effectively recognize and address bullying at an early stage.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Moving From the “Blame Game” to Problem-Solving About Truancy

We recently posted on CFCC’s Facebook page a link to a Baltimore Sun front-page article about a new anti-truancy intervention in Baltimore City. Although the program itself is laudable and a wonderful complement to CFCC’s Truancy Court Program (TCP), operating in six Baltimore City Public Schools this year, what really caught our eye was the discussion in the Sun’s comments section. The majority of the writers put the blame for a child’s truancy on parents or schools. Some asked why parents should get additional resources simply to enable them to do their jobs.

Too often, the debate on truancy turns into a “blame game.” We know that school attendance statistics in Baltimore City are dismal. For example, more than one-quarter of Baltimore City’s public school students end up leaving school before high school graduation – which is not surprising given the 82 percent high school attendance rate. But it’s how we respond to the grim statistics that matters. Often that response focuses on blame and punishment, rather than on fully understanding the problem and providing support.

Assigning blame more often than not creates an adversarial and punitive climate that overshadows a deeper understanding of the reasons that underlie truant behavior. Does a student’s attendance improve if we incarcerate or fine her parents? Or if we demote or fire her teacher? Students in the vast majority of truancy cases need a caring adult, a mentor, and/or a person of authority to understand and help to address their problems. They need the school, their families, and the community to assist them to get back on track, whether it is in response to bullying, catching up with school work, homelessness, or any one of the myriad issues that confront our students on a daily basis.

Instead of pointing the finger of blame, let’s use community-based, therapeutic, and holistic programs like CFCC’s Truancy Court Program to make a deep and lasting change in the lives of our students.