The old saying is “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” But the reality is sticks, stones, and names can all hurt. Today many in Anne Arundel County are coming together to see that kindness prevails over bullying of all kinds.
Unity Day was started in 2011 by the Pacer Center’s National Bullying Prevention Center, as part of the National Bullying Prevention Month (the month was created by Pacer in 2006.) Pacer is an advocacy organization for disabled children and their families.
Unity Day’s purpose is for people to show unity in kindness, acceptance and inclusion. The most visible sign of Unity Day is the orange shirts which supporters and participants are encouraged to wear around the country. In the Anne Arundel County Public School District (AACPS) the day is actually extended to four days to build on awareness.
“We started Project Unity years ago by recognizing Unity Day,” said AACPS spokeswoman Maneka Monk. “Schools get very excited about it—the staff and students.”
A bonus for kids may be that they get early dismissal today, while teachers and staff spend the rest of the school day attending professional development conferences. Those conferences are somewhat related to the goals of Unity Day, in that topic they cover is equity in the classroom.
“If students don’t feel like they have a caring adult trying to get to know them deeply it’s difficult,” said Maisha Gillins, AACPS executive director of equity and acceleration of student achievement. “We’re relationship driven.”
Today’s professional development involves efforts to focus on staff cultural awareness and how staff respond culturally to students.
Teachers will be leading a classroom carrying their own cultural experiences, but many students have vastly different experiences, Gillins said.
“How do we bridge that?” she said. “If they (students) don’t feel seen or heard, they may retreat.”
Gillins said the professional development is based on science and informed by data-driven results. The schools’ approach includes examining attendance, academic, and disciplinary data, to see how the district is doing.
“It’s all about student outcomes,” she said. “We’re going to be looking closely at how this is showing up in our data.”
Cultural awareness is just one avenue that can be explored to reduce bullying. The experience of bulling has been prevalent during much of human existence, and today the average bully may have more weapons at his disposal than ever before, as well as a hostile climate to bully in.
The federal government defines bullying as containing three possible components:
unwanted aggressive behavior
observed or perceived power imbalance
repetition or high likelihood of repetition of bullying behaviors
But bullying in reality is less elegantly expressed by the bully themselves.
“Now it’s rivalry against rivalry,” said Ron-Shaye Clark, founder of MEGA—a non profit serving Annapolis youth. “The bullying is just a whole other dynamic now.”
Bullying locally has intensified since her own youth Clark said. It can be because children are from different neighborhoods, or people in general are just trying to bully their way through life. Children can be the most vulnerable victims of bullying.
“It’s sad because a lot of them (children) don’t know how to talk about bullying,” she said. “We try to find alternatives.”
Children in MEGA are coming together today in Annapolis to talk about the children who have been lost through bullying. They are tragedies that probably could have been avoided.
Interestingly though, while anecdotally instances of bullying are abundant, the most recent statistics available indicate incidents of bullying were going down as recent as three years ago. The percentage of public schools that reported student bullying occurred at least once a week decreased from 29 percent in 1999–2000 to 14 percent in 2017–18.
It’s quite possible that efforts like National Bullying Prevention Month are having a positive impact in schools, at least. But bullying remains a serious problem, especially for family members who are in danger of losing a child to bullying-related suicide. Victims of bullying also suffer from mental health issues, health complaints, and poor academic achievement at a higher rate than non-bullied children according to the federal government.
Clark for one has had enough of bullying.
“We need to be more hands-on here now,” she said. “You can’t just talk about it. Change needs to happen. Otherwise we’re going to have a messed up world.”