One of the more important issues that concerns me as a parent in this day and age is our children’s safety while they are at school. We always want our children to be in a safe environment while they are out of care and that means a significant portion of that responsibility falls on our school system. We need to have our children feel secure and learn in an atmosphere that engenders a feeling of respect and consideration among the students themselves. Bullying is something that can compromise that atmosphere, and reduce the chance a child will fulfill their educational and social potential. Bullying has become a topic of national importance and New Jersey was one of the first states to enact anti-bullying measures in 2002. New Jersey has since expanded those measures in 2011 and it has had an effect on the measures implemented here in our District schools.
Our District employs an overall anti-bullying coordinator and each school has an anti-bullying specialist. These specialists are trained to evaluate and review bullying complaints and then determine if they rise to the level of harassment, intimidation or bullying (or “HIB” for short). Every complaint is ultimately reviewed by the Superintendent and the Board of Education. I have been told that bullying complaints have been reduced from approximately 70 complaints to 30 complaints in the two years that such complaints have been tracked by the District. The reduction has been attributed to our teachers and professionals learning what constitutes HIB under the law and also to the awareness that the law and the District policies bring to the topic itself. I think this is the way we really win with these policies. Educating our children at an early age about the way in which they should relate to their peers, and defining what behavior is acceptable is a way to establish healthy and productive interaction among our children, especially on social media where cyber-bullying is a growing issue. We know that having a policy in place will not eliminate incidents of HIB, but the process of addressing bullying complaints and the remedial actions taken when necessary send the message that such behavior is unacceptable. School activities such as the “Week of Respect” also reinforce the way people should be treated.
I would suggest that we expand these types of activities at the student level and, whenever possible, provide our teachers and school officials with additional training to identify HIB incidents. We also need to provide training so that students may be educated about the causes and effects of bullying and the harm that can be created by such incidents. I think the educational aspect rather than the punitive aspect of anti-bullying programs is what will really make a difference in changing behavior.
Security is another growing concern. We must take the precautions necessary to verify the identity and purpose of the people who enter our schools on a daily basis. Periodically our children will come home and talk about the “lockdown” procedures that they are instructed to go through at their school. Statistically the chance that these procedures will ever need to be used is remote, but it is important to have them in place and to educate our children about what they should do in the event of a crisis. This can be a tough thing to talk about with your children. In our house we took some time to prepare for the conversation about why a school might need to go into lockdown mode. We emphasized the idea of safety and tried not to cause undue worry about why such procedures need to be in place. As a District, we need to evaluate these procedures on an ongoing basis so that in the unlikely event of some actual crisis teachers, staff and students can be brought to positons of safety as quickly as possible.
Finally I’d like to address the issue of anxiety in our children. I have been surprised about how often I hear parents speak of their children and anxiety issues. After listening to some of the experiences, I think the pressure on kids to get good grades, make the cut in sporting teams, get selected for dance and theater teams or various other clubs, and to be accepted socially can be overwhelming. Maintaining that level of activity can be difficult for any child but a setback in any of these areas seems to me, at times, to cause extreme anxiety and almost a fear of failure. I think as adults, we can easily find good things to say about failure, namely that it means you’re trying and that sometimes your reach should exceed your grasp. I wonder though if our kids are able to take this approach and view such setbacks as a one-time incident. Instead, it seems that these struggles can be something that creates anxiety and an avoidance to participating in activities, even activities that were fun in the past. Each of our schools employs trained counselors equipped to deal with these issues. I’d like to focus on the resources available and potentially available, as the result of grants or other funding programs, to the District as a means to address this issue if I am elected to the Board. There will be a presentation on this topic at the Westfield High School next week and it’s an issue I’d like to see get greater attention for the benefit of our children.