The Pathway goals “Every student will feel accepted” and “Every student will be supported inside and outside of school” are core to this piece that appeared in the September 18 issue of the Scenic Range NewsForum. …

By Scott Stein

    When the Minnesota legislature approved the Safe and Supportive Schools Act last April, many suggested that Minnesota went from having one of weakest anti-bullying laws in the nation to one of the strongest.

    Having a law is one thing. Making it work is another.

    Itasca County school districts welcomed the law change for the most part. Matt Grose, superintendent in Deer River, said the new law creates a common definition of bullying and helps define the school’s role in helping to prevent it.

    “The former law said that schools had to have a policy,” Grose said. “This law provides more detail. There will always be people who say it didn’t go far enough and others who say it goes too far. But now everyone has a common definition of what bullying is, and that will help.”

    That definition statement is significant because one of the biggest strategies Itasca County schools are using is to try to have a consistent message across all grade levels. That consistent message has to be built around a common understanding.

    That common understanding also helps weave the anti-bullying message into the community beyond the school walls. We can sometimes think of bullying as a school problem, but as hard as educators and other professionals work to curb bullying behavior in the school, it’s just as important to have that message reinforced outside the school walls.

    “Parents are our greatest asset,” said Teresa Stephens, a guidance counselor at the Grand Rapids Middle School. “Bullying happens at more places than school, and when the whole community works together to work against this, great things can happen.”

    Still, working together isn’t easy, and bullying can be a tricky problem, particularly because people think of it as solely the school’s job. The new law provides direction for schools to track what’s happening within their schools and mandates training. School districts are a key player simply by the nature of what they do, and new training requirements are clear about whose job it is to stop bullying in schools – it’s everyone’s.

    Mark Adams, superintendent of the Nashwauk-Keewatin and Greenway school districts, said they already have invested heavily in all staff levels so that everyone knew that putting a stop to bullying was a top priority. They also knew what their responsibilities were to prevent it.

    “We want everyone to be on the same page,” Adams said. “We set a standard for the kind of behavior we expect, and we ask them to carry that into all situations in their life.”

    Currently, schools provide training for staff and provide bullying information to parents and students. Anti-bullying materials are being added to curriculum across all grade levels, and teachers, counselors and other staff are more educated than ever before on how to stop bullying. Yet, problems still occur. The Greenway district, for example, mourned the suicide death of one of its former students recently. A story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune suggests that bullying may have played a role.

    “That tragedy is something all districts have felt,” Adams said. “We need to always look for different ways to reach out to families and students. We need to do it in every way we can.”

    Part of the difficulty in doing that is that schools can put an enormous amount of time, dollars and training into anti-bullying programs and the problem still marches on. By its very nature, bullies pressure those being bullied into silence. Breaking that silence is often the hardest part, and the responsibility of getting kids to open up about it and then to act on that information has fallen heavily (some would say too heavily) on school districts.

    “Each case is so different,” said Laura Glorvigen, a counselor at the Grand Rapids Middle School. “We need to make kids and other people bold about talking about it. It’s hard for us to do our job when people don’t want to directly do something about it.”

    There’s evidence that the old code of keeping bullying silent is cracking, though. The years of work school districts have put in emphasizing positive behavior, modeling tolerance, and educating staff, students and the community on bullying may be taking root more than you’d think. Bullying is a topic that attracts a lot of headlines when awful situations occur, but many educators who work with kids each day think the situation is improving.

    “Everyone wants zero incidents,” said Grand Rapids Middle School Assistant Principal Dan Adams. “We all want to create an environment where kids feel safe and are excited about learning. And for the most part, you see that in all our schools.”

    It makes sense. As culture shifts more toward inclusivity and tolerance of different ideas, kids adopt that attitude around them. So although the debate about bullying usually centers around a community’s school, the issue goes much deeper into the community itself and the behaviors and ideas that a community accepts.

    “It’s a total community effort,” Adams said. “If we’re truly going to make an impact, these ideas have to be everywhere, and I think that, increasingly, they are.”