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In a District 65 survey of third to eighth graders, 24% said they had been called mean names or teased. (Photo by Bessie Mbadugha)

As Evanston/Skokie School District 65 students reacclimated to in-person learning this year, there has been an increase in reports of bullying.

Elijah Palmer, Dean of Culture and Climate at the district, told the School Board’s Curriculum Committee in December that “families have reached out daily with alleged bullying allegations,” each of which requires a time-consuming investigation.

In his report, presented at a Dec. 6 committee meeting, he mentioned his request to schools to clarify the definition of bullying with families, to minimize extraneous investigations of isolated incidents. “The communication is intended to not minimize the aggressive act, but to be able to define whether it was a fight or assault or if it is repeated over a period of time and involves an imbalance of power to be labeled bullying.”

The District 65 Student Handbook offers a more detailed definition of bullying, which includes cyberbullying, and a list of criteria for differentiating a social conflict from a bullying situation.

The District 65 Handbook’s comparison between “social conflict” and “bullying.”

Students’ perception of bullying climate

At the Monday, Feb. 7 committee meeting, Palmer shared an update on the results of the student survey conducted as part of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.

Adopted by the district to reduce and prevent bullying at its schools, the program “has been found to reduce bullying among students, improve the social climate of classrooms, and to reduce related anti-social behavior such as truancy,” Palmer said. The anti-bullying program has been implemented in more than 1,000 schools in the U.S., according to Palmer.

The survey, completed by the district’s third to eighth grade population, revealed:

  • 24% of students reported that they had been called mean names, been made fun of or teased in a hurtful way in class or at school.
  • 20% of students said they have been purposefully left out from their groups of friends or just completely ignored.
  • 17% of students reported being hit, kicked, pushed or shoved around, or locked out of a room or building at school. 
  • 14% of students said that other students told lies or spread false rumors about them in class or at school.
  • 9% of students reported being bullied with mean or hurtful messages via texts, calls or online by a student in class or at school.

Students reported that the majority of incidents occur on the playground, during gym or in the lunchroom. Palmer said that there is a need for increased supervision in these locations, as well as teacher and staff training in the ability to recognize the signs of bullying.

In the survey, 27% of students said that an adult or teacher was able to stop bullying, compared with 20% of students who said that their fellow students were able to stop bullying. Students also expressed empathy, with 88% saying that they felt sorry for those who are bullied.

Palmer announced that the district has contracted with Playworks, a nonprofit that provides customized recess periods to encourage activity while simultaneously fostering “life skills ranging from conflict resolution to leadership.” In addition, the program will provide training for lunchroom supervisors on how to prevent bullying, as well as how to recognize, de-escalate and address incidents that occur, according to Palmer.

Terrance Little, Assistant Superintendent of Schools, wrote later in an email: “We will begin the Playworks program at Dewey, Oakton, Haven, King Arts, Washington, and Dawes. The plan is to incorporate Playworks in some capacity in every school in District 65.”

The initial six schools to participate in the Playworks program were selected based on culture and climate data, with the aim of giving “the lunchroom supervisor and the schools more tools for their toolkit to try to avoid the bullying situation,” Palmer said at the meeting. He added that the initial rollout would afford the district the opportunity to better understand the program and gauge its success at those six schools.

Stating that the district has a “historical challenge of over-identifying students of color in a lot of categories,” District 65 Board member Biz Lindsay-Ryan requested a closer look at the possible role that bullying may be playing in absenteeism and truancy, which disproportionately affects students of color.

Lindsay-Ryan said when students are absent because they feel that school is not a safe place for them, the problem is further compounded by learning loss due to the absences. She called for an analysis of whether absenteeism is occurring because students do not feel a sense of belonging or safety at school.

Students’ voices on diversity and inclusion

At Monday’s committee meeting, Donna Cross, the district’s Director of Multi-Tiered System of Support and Social Emotional Learning, shared the results of a Panorama Education survey designed to learn students’ perceptions of the district’s equity effort and how it affects them. 

Cross reported that favorable student responses to questions about diversity and inclusion remained the same as last fall at 83%, placing the district in the 90th percentile nationally.

Favorable responses to questions about cultural awareness and action decreased from 79% last fall to 69% this fall, but that level was still in the 90th percentile. Teacher-student relationships also fell from last year’s 76% to 69%, which is in the 60th percentile. Students’ sense of belonging was 52%, relatively unchanged from last year’s 53%, and ranked in the 40th percentile. Similarly, student engagement was 38% last fall and 37% this fall, ranking in the 30th percentile. 

Cross included the graph below in her presentation, showing deviations from the averages as positive or negative numbers. Compared with white students, students of color expressed less satisfaction with diversity and inclusion, teacher-student relationships and overall well-being and social-emotional learning.

(Source: District 65 presentation)

In addition, Cross highlighted that the data shows that the sense of belonging and engagement decreases as students enter the higher middle school grades.

“Something we need to focus on in our upper grades is lifting up that sense of belonging,” Cross said. 

Lindsay-Ryan said she appreciated conversations on these issues, stating, “I think belongingness is such a critical piece to how everyone feels about their day in a District 65 building. … If those numbers are not where we want them to be for students, then that also affects the experience for staff and affects their mental health.”  

(Source: District 65 presentation)

Cross said the survey responses were anonymous to encourage honest assessment from students. Free-response questions also provided the opportunity for students to share further insight. For instance, when asked what their school could continue doing to support students of different races, ethnicities and cultures, students gave responses such as “having conversations about race more to make it less uncomfortable,” she said. 

Sample student responses from the Panorama Education survey. (Source: District 65 presentation)

Cross added, “From a teacher lens, I’m looking at this as, OK, this is what my kids are saying. This is what I could possibly attribute that to, and these [are] actionable steps that I can actually take in my classroom, daily, weekly, monthly to change that data.”

Next steps

With student input from the Olweus bullying and the Panorama surveys, Cross said that the next step for her and Palmer is to work with School Climate Teams to help each school select a focus area, create action plans and determine what supports are needed at the district level and from outside sources. “We really want to make sure we’re actually using this data to inform the work.” 

Cross said the district will also be participating in a statewide project to address mental health in Illinois schools. In her report to the board, Cross wrote that a coach will be assigned to the district to “help us identify our needs with the TRS (Trauma-Responsive School) assessment, develop action plans to align and strengthen our current SEL [social-emotional learning] and mental health services, and provide professional learning and communities of practice to improve our systems and develop common practices to support students and staff.” 

The program – provided by a partnership between the Illinois State Board of Education, the Center for Childhood Resilience at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and the Regional Office of Education Social and Emotional Learning Hubs – is free to the district and will begin in March, with final action plans to be completed in July.

Cross added that the program will continue through the next two years, with professional learning and “a really heavy focus on staff and their health and mental health and well-being and how that relates in their work.”

This story has been updated to identify the six schools where the Playworks program will initially roll out.

Bessie Mbadugha

Bessie N. A. Mbadugha took a hiatus from her previous life as a Chemistry professor to devote more time to her family, and became an active leader in numerous community initiatives in Hillsborough, North...

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  1. As of 2/21 bullying (punching and kicking) is still going on (repeatedly) in Dewey’s playground and lunchroom, apparently with little or no adult supervision. An anti-bullying program to be implemented does not help the first graders who are being traumatized now. Complaints have been made to the school principal and central office administrators and nothing has changed. jon jacobson (an Evanston resident for 54 years)