Kids have developed and filmed the show about bullying, produced and shot in the Evanston Community Television studio on Asbury.Photos by Mike Petroshus

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Bullying is as old as civilization but has taken a public spotlight since the Columbine High School tragedy of 1999. In a strange way, the two alienated and angry perpetrators of that school massacre – allegedly both victims of bullying – have been catalysts for the growing interest in social-emotional learning (SEL) in our schools. Evanston’s school administrators, teachers, parents, school social workers, and school psychologists have become increasingly aware that kids learn and develop best in safe, inclusive, and comfortable environments. And adults need to figure out how to better provide them.

When District 65 launched its comprehensive five-year Strategic Plan in 2015, it focused on more than the rudimentary three Rs. Social-emotional learning (SEL) was a cornerstone. One section of the plan focuses on Safe Supportive School Climate, which in broad strokes articulates goals to 1) incorporate instruction on social and emotional competencies into the academic curriculum (A+SEL); 2) address the staff’s need to further refine their own social and emotional skills to better meet the needs of their students; and 3) focus on the holistic needs of individual students and groups of students through district- and school-level teams dedicated to academic progress, social and emotional learning, disciplinary strategies, cultural responsiveness, and other wrap-around services for students.

Out of the District’s initial plan for a Safe Supportive School Climate have come nitty-gritty details for fostering better social relationships and enhancing trust, empathy, and understanding among students. One initiative is Peacemaking Circles, a well-researched approach that borrows from Native American and other indigenous group practices. Led by trained facilitators, peacemaking circles are safe, structured, and ritualistic processes where people talk to each other from the heart and together agree on steps to heal and resolve conflicts. Schools across the country are using these practices that honor inclusion, respect, and problem solving – starting with children as young as kindergartners.

The Evanston Police Department is experienced in using restorative practices with youth offenders and two years ago partnered with District 65 to train teachers in the restorative philosophy at two pilot sites, Washington and Lincoln schools. Using the same trainers-train-trainers model of the EPD, now the District’s school social workers, teachers, and the District’s full-time Restorative Practices Coordinator will play key roles in changing the school climate from a punitive to a restorative mindset.

Susan Kolian, District 65’s Restorative Practices Coordinator, says circles are a strong and effective tool that strengthen relationships and community across grades. Format and ritual are important to restorative circles, and within a structured format participants learn from and support each other. A restorative circle, regardless of the grade level or age of the participants, typically looks like this:

Everyone sits in a circle. (Each person can see every other person.)

There is an object that serves as the talking piece. (Only one person holds the talking piece, and that person has the right to speak without interruption. The talking piece is passed around the circle so everyone who wants to has a chance to be heard while others listen.)

Each person speaks from the heart and listens from the heart. (Difficult as it might be, each person speaks the truth as he/she knows it and listens with patience and care.)

What is said in the circle stays in the circle. (Information is confidential and private. If safety feels like a concern, a student can discuss issues with a teacher or discuss it further next time the circle convenes.)

Each person uses “I” statements.
(Each person speaks about his/her own experiences, thoughts, and feelings –
without blaming others or presuming to know what others think.)

The circle has an opening and a closing. (The ritual of having a specific opening and closing helps create feelings of safety for participants.)

Using circles in classrooms is a continuum of practices, starting with lower elementary sharing circles, where students build self-awareness, self-control, and relationship skills. Older elementary and middle school students can benefit from using responsive circles to engage in collective problem-solving about negative behaviors or other somewhat serious school issues.

Formal peace-making (sometimes called restorative justice) circles use the same general guidelines in response to serious incidents or repetitive harmful incidents. Instead of the offender’s receiving harsh punishment, the offender, victim, and other stakeholders are supported and encouraged to come forward to accept responsibility and together problem-solve ways to repair harm.

These latter practices, led by well-trained facilitators, are geared to older students with more risky behaviors and offences. According to the International Institute for Restorative Practices, case studies and evaluations from schools worldwide indicate that “restorative practices improve relationships between students and teachers, reduce disciplinary problems and also build community.”

District 65’s investment is in the restorative value system as a powerful tool to change bullying and anti-social behavior.

Middle school can be a challenging time for kids, and experts agree that schools and communities addressing bullying and other anti-social behaviors should start when kids are young. Evanston resident, Carrie Goldman, a graduate of Kellogg’s M.B.A program and the author of the book “Bullied,” said, “We need to get kids through the middle years without the long-term effects of bullying. Research has shown that bullying is a form of trauma for both the victim and the offender because social pain affects the brain.”

In her presentations to schools and parent groups, Ms. Goldman talks of making witnesses and allies out of bystanders to take power away from those who are bullying.

Ms. Goldman also makes the point that “we have to be sure the situation we are dealing with is bullying and not normal social conflict. Normal conflict can be mean, but it isn’t bullying if it doesn’t occur repeatedly and have an imbalance of power.” In 2010 after writing a blog entry that went viral about her own young daughter’s painful experiences, Ms. Goldman said she found herself becoming deeply immersed in the issue of bullying and ways families, schools, and communities need to respond.

“Even if your child is not involved in a bullying relationship, he or she is bound to experience social conflict. This is where SEL comes into play, smoothing the way for your child to be successful in school and in life,” said Ms. Goldman. “It is never too early to teach SEL, because social conflict begins in the preschool environment.”

For about a decade District 65 has used a well-tested framework for improving behavior and school climate. PBIS (acronym for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) is a research-based model supported by the Illinois State Board of Education and used widely across the country. Its three-tiered approach focuses on the development and maintenance of a positive school climate with positive academic and social outcomes.

Although PBIS was not designed to specifically address bullying, its successful implementation has in fact had a positive impact on preventing bullying. When PBIS was launched by the District, the first task of each school was forming an oversight and management team of committed teachers and stakeholders; the second task was completing a school climate audit.

School teams looked at reports of truancy and school absenteeism, disciplinary visits to the principal’s office, playground and lunchroom fights, and parent and student reports of student harassment and bullying. Information gleaned from the audits helped each school know where to consolidate energy. PBIS intervention plans focus on consistent and repeated positive messages, building strong teacher-student relationships, and a school-wide concentration on affirmations rather than punishments.

“We try to catch kids doing something good, rather than something bad,” said Willard Elementary School Assistant Principal, Jerry Succes. His morning announcements over the PA system often include “special hoots” to recognize exceptional student behaviors, and those special hoots are followed up with a certificate for students to take home to share with family. When teachers give out hoots – the little paper notes that congratulate kids for small positive behaviors like lining up quietly or picking up books someone dropped – the teachers are reaffirming their own connections to their students, and also rewarding kids with a tangible kind of currency that can be stockpiled for small privileges or merchandise from the school store.

University of Oregon Professor George Sugai, one of the authors of the PBIS model, says rewards like hoots are really about prompting a moment of recognition between teacher and student. He said, “When you give a kid that piece of paper, what matters most is the handshake and the praise – ‘I like the way you did that.’”

Thoughtful and pragmatic advice about combating bullying comes from lots of people in the trenches. Margaret Rothe, veteran social worker at Nichols Middle School, understands the value of a little “social engineering” to help kids through some rough spots. She said, “I can’t be everywhere at once, but I try to know what’s happening in the halls, on the playground, and in the cafeteria. Those are places where conflict, unkindness, and bullying often take place. The ladies in the lunchroom – they are a fund of knowledge because they see and hear everything and can report who’s having problems and who’s usually isolated.”

Ms. Rothe says she knows which kids will benefit from having someone to walk home with after school and sometimes will arrange for another student or two to join the vulnerable one.

“Lunch time is hard for many kids, so we try to have teacher-sponsored clubs like book groups or an occasional maker-space for kids who like to build and tinker rather than hanging out in the lunchroom,” Ms. Rothe says.

Another practice vouched for by two school administrators is the buddy program: pairing older students with younger ones at designated times for special activities where both the mentor and the mentee gain from the social interaction. In her book “Sticks and Stones,” Emily Bazelon, journalist and graduate of Yale Law School, gives thoughtful advice about changing the culture of bullying: “1) When you see someone being mean to another, don’t ignore it. 2) It’s rarely a good idea to reply or respond to online harassment because it escalates the situation. 3) If you’re a kid and can’t stop the bullying being directed at you, tell an adult you trust.”

 Julie Saflarski, a psychologist and post-doctoral fellow at Northwestern’s Family Institute, says she believes it is essential that bullied kids have a supportive adult in their corner. Some kids are too ashamed or intimidated to initiate conversation about being bullied, so Ms. Saflarski encourages parents to be aware of possible signs: the child’s repeatedly lost or damaged belongings; refusal to go to school; bruises, cuts and other physical indications of abuse; avoidance of eating at school; or self-destructive behaviors such as cutting.

“Parents, of course, need to make the distinction between normal conflict and bullying before they alert school officials and become aggressively involved in the child’s situation. If parents recognize a lot of the signs of bullying, they should first communicate with their child about what they’ve observed. Then parents should focus on the problem the child is experiencing, and together with the child, problem-solve and come up with some strategies,” Ms. Salflarski says. She recommends not using labels that emphasize “bad guys” and “good guys,” but encourages people to focus on the mean acts and words that are not acceptable.

“Sometimes alerting the school is exactly what should be done. Ask if there should be more adult presence during vulnerable times. Should there be a buddy system for going into the bathroom or riding the bus? What is the school doing to educate kids about internet safety? If there’s cyber bullying, notify the school immediately,” Ms. Saflarski says.

Social-emotional learning can be implemented in different ways. A 10 year-old Evanston girl, Marley, (not her real name) has been the considerable force behind a hands-on initiative to educate people about what bullying can look and feel like. Marley experienced several years of bullying at two different District 65 schools, says her mother, who currently home-schools her daughter. Several months ago Marley came up with the idea of kids making videos or a TV show about bullying – and Marley now is having the good fortune to see her ideas happening – plus more. Thanks to a family friend, Mike Petroshus, who is on the board of Evanston’s Community Television, Marley’s idea immediately had a champion.

“I liked the idea when I heard about it,” said Mr. Petroshus. “I think Marley’s a great kid, the ECTV’s space and equipment is available, and this is a safe place to give kids a project where they can accomplish 90% of it with us guiding them.” He said he liked the idea of kids building self-confidence, of their having a place and group where socializing would be easy and free of worries, and where the kids’ messages about bullying could have an
audience. The goal was to start with a small group of kids who had either been bullied themselves or known someone who had been bullied – and kids whose parents bought into the idea. The group of 8-10 year-olds named their series “Know Bullying … No Bullying.”

Mr. Petroshus says he likes teaching the kids how to operate the equipment but thought the scope of activities should be expanded. He wanted the kids to use their emerging video and interviewing skills in other ways and venues. “I thought it would be good to get the kids out of the studio and into the field, covering different things,” he said. At the end of April they went to the opening event for Oakton School’s Edible Garden, where PTA parents were painting flats, readying the soil, and planting.

The Know Bullying kids polished their new skills by operating the cameras and interviewing PTA volunteers. A month later the crew of young videographers covered Evanston’s annual YEA Festival at Raymond Park and interviewed student artists on camera.

“I am happy for the kids putting a spotlight on the trauma of bullying,” said Marley’s mother, “but I’m most happy when I have seen Marley sitting down at a table and eating pizza and having a great time with a bunch of kids.” Parents interested in learning more about the Know Bullying initiative can email at nobullyinhevanston.com.