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School Officials Discuss Bullying

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Editor’s note: this is the second in a story series about bullying in local schools. Part 1 featured stories of students who experienced bullying in Montpelier and Barre schools. Today, we feature local administrators discussing potential causes and solutions for the bullying, harassment, and hazing that local youths face. 

At local school board meetings and on social media, parents and families are confronting an issue they say has persisted far too long: bullying in school. School administrators and board members say bullying starts outside of schools and solving the problem requires the work of all community members.

Bullying, harassment, and hazing have specific definitions outlined by Vermont statutes, noted Jim Murphy, chair of the Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools board of school directors. Libby Bonesteel, MRPS superintendent, explained that harassment involves teasing or derogatory treatment based on the victim’s identity; bullying is a targeted and repeated behavior aimed against one person; and hazing entails forcing someone to do something they would not otherwise do in order to join a group.

When such incidents are reported, Murphy said, administrators investigate in “a pretty time-intensive process and determine … whether or not there was harassment or bullying.” From there, schools take steps to address behavior. 

Local schools have begun to adopt restorative justice or restorative practices in recent years, Bonesteel said, which involve “learning how to talk to each other and take care of each other in the community.” Bonesteel added that MRPS is working with Montpelier-based education nonprofit UP for Learning and Vermont restorative justice consultant John Kidde in this regard. These practices can also be preventative rather than reactive in nature, Bonesteel noted.

“We have student groups involved with UP for Learning to increase student voice through leadership and social-emotional learning opportunities,” Bonesteel said. Staff training is underway, and therapeutic programs, including helping students with social skills, have been added. 

The Scope of the Problem

Of course, school boards and administrators must know the scope of the problem in order to address it fully. In the past several weeks, parents have turned out on warm summer evenings to talk to board members about their experiences and concerns around bullying in local schools. At the June 15 MRPS Board meeting, parents described instances of their children being mistreated by classmates and the harmful emotional consequences they experienced as a result. 

“The meeting that you saw was, other than a few emails, I think the first time we’ve heard in significant numbers that this was happening.” Murphy said, adding that the meeting “put a pretty strong underline that the problem was maybe more severe than we had thought.” Murphy noted that the issue had been discussed at a board retreat in June. 

At a July 14 meeting of the Barre Unified Union School District, parents and community members waited for a scheduled “listening session” from the meeting’s start at 6 p.m. until the agenda item came at 8:30 p.m. Among those in attendance was Stacy Hubbell, whose son was badly injured during an assault along the Barre bike path, allegedly at the hands of other students, on one of the last days of the school year. Last Wednesday’s session followed a June 23 board meeting, which featured a tense exchange between Hubbell and board chair Sonya Spaulding, during which Hubbell rose to leave the meeting. Spaulding later apologized.

COVID’s Contribution

Barre Superintendent Chris Hennessey noted that a growing mental health crisis contributes to recent bullying in schools. Much of this has a glaringly obvious reason, he said: COVID. 

“I think really what it comes down to as well is just the overall anxiety,” Hennessey said. “We’re kind of talking about mental health issues here, we’re talking about the anxiety … coming out of a pandemic, and kids’ ability to feel safe when they come to school. … with the transmission and all the quarantining and all of that, that is definitely going to raise the temperature of people’s anxiety.”

Murphy, too, pointed to COVID as a contributor: “[It’s] a very unique time with COVID where students were under a lot of both stress and constraints that I think it’s fair to say probably repressed or set back a lot of social and emotional learning.” He added that this is a particular problem for middle-schoolers; many of the issues parents have identified are occurring within this age group. 

This is typically an age where, Murphy said, “kids are really sometimes pushing boundaries and exploring social relations in a way that sometimes can be challenging.”

Bonesteel, too, pointed to middle school years as a critical time in emotional learning. “In the developmental years between fifth and eighth grade, there’s a lot of mistakes that are made, often, in adolescence,” she said, “and there’s the chance to make amends and figure out what’s right or wrong to say to each other.” Students who just graduated eighth grade, she said, spent much of this crucial period in a highly controlled, atypical middle school environment due to COVID precautions and restrictions.

Bullying in Local Schools Goes Back Years

At the July 14 Barre school board meeting, community members addressed the board about their bullying concerns, detailing challenges faced by their children who had been tormented and assaulted by fellow students and who now struggled with anxiety . 

Many attendees noted that, contrary to being a recent issue, bullying and harassment stretched back years, and those who spoke pointed to what they called a lack of accountability for children who bully others.

Said Tina Routhier, “The bottom line is accountability and being heard.”

“It’s very tempting to say that everyone is dysregulated because of COVID, or everyone’s dysregulated because of x or y,” Melissa Houser, a local family doctor and founder and executive director of the neurodiversity inclusion nonprofit All Brains Belong, said in an interview. “But really, I think we need to better understand what is happening for the students who are being bullied and for the students who are doing the bullying.”

Houser pointed to dysregulation as a contributing factor to challenges students face in schools. Per Psychology Today magazine, dysregulation is an overblown or uncontrolled response to an event. Houser noted that dysregulation can happen for reasons as different as the students themselves.

Kids Do What Adults Do

Indeed, there are many factors at play. The countless pandemic-related challenges that educators, children, and families have faced over the past two years certainly have contributed. But research suggests it isn’t just COVID. Bullying was never limited to the schoolyard, as any adult with a bad boss can attest. And educators at schools across the country also reported an alarming jump in harmful behaviors following the 2016 election. 

According to a Southern Poverty Law Center study, teachers nationwide saw hate-based graffiti on school property, children hurling racial slurs at classmates, and other behaviors they had never observed before in their schools, during this time.

Hennessey also identified as a potential culprit “the overall breakdown in … civility, kindness, and respect in our civic discourse, and when that stuff is out there, as it really has been in the last couple years on social media, at school board meetings, in parent-teacher conferences, you name it, our kids are watching.” 

“They’re listening to this,” Hennessey added. “They’re watching it. A lot of the social media feeds that I see coming from parts of the community in many ways mirror in both tone and content what we see our kids doing to each other. It shouldn’t surprise us, right? All of our children learn from us.”

Bonesteel, too, pointed to larger-scale difficulties making their way into school: people “attacking people based on their identities, or their political beliefs, or their parents’ political beliefs.” She noted, “It’s happening in our society all the time now.”

Students who are bullied suffer greatly from their experience, and, Murphy said, children who mistreat others are often themselves also victims of mistreatment. These students “oftentimes are bringing a lot of difficult home circumstances or difficult emotional circumstances into schools that are causing them to behave in an aggressive, demeaning, and inappropriate way towards their fellow students, and those are issues that need to be identified and dealt with, too.”

Such students may also have been bullied already, noted Houser, and their mental health is often suffering.

With so many difficulties within and outside schools, Hennessey said, help will likely involve “a real change in how the community engages with schools, and likewise maybe how schools engage with the community.” He added, “I’ve done a lot of work in Barre this year to engage with the community in more positive and proactive ways, but that has to go both ways.”

Safety First

If schools are going to serve as places of learning, what’s needed is a fundamental level of safety, according to Houser. “In order to engage the higher-level parts of your brain, you need to feel safe and have your basic needs of physiologic and emotional safety being met,” Houser noted. “If the nervous system does not feel safe, learning cannot happen.”

She explained it this way: “If I’m in an environment where there is a grizzly bear in my classroom, I’m going to be using all of my cognitive resources to handle that situation. My priority is going to be safety.”

Murphy said the MRPS board is focusing on school safety. “We are really looking at it from a policy perspective, from a resources perspective, and also I think through the lens of the pandemic, and certainly our goal is to make sure that our schools are a safe and welcoming place for everyone.” Murphy added that conversations between the board and school administrators will concentrate on what is happening in schools and how schools are implementing policies around bullying.

Hennessey is looking to the community to help, and noted that Barre’s new police chief, Brad Vail, had reached out to the local schools regarding the creation of a task force in Barre City, involving the school psychologist, the goal of which, Hennessey said, would be the sharing of information about students and families needing support. 

“It is such a breath of fresh air to have our local police department reach out to us in that way,” Hennessey said.

At Barre’s July 14 school board meeting, member Terry Reil encouraged proceeding with caution, ensuring that a police task force well-defined and well-controlled.

Hennessey is looking both within and outside schools for solutions. “We’re trying to model this, teach it, in the face of a general breakdown of that civility, kindness, and respect in our overall civic discourse. I think that’s a huge challenge and something that we have to publicly address. It cannot be all on the schools to address this.”