On paper, everything looks good.
Oak Park Elementary School District 97 just won't tolerate bullying.
It says so in its 16-page promotional overview of our schools. As you read it, it tells you that we have a "Culture of Safety" because "we believe that in order for students to achieve optimum learning, they must first feel safe and secure. We maintain schools free of all forms of intimidation, bullying, and harassment."
There is even language in the Board of Education's policies and rules:
"Bullying (hurting or frightening someone smaller or less physically able to resist), sexual harassment, racial or ethnic slurs, or other behaviors that impugn another student's dignity shall not be tolerated. Students engaging in such behavior will be given appropriate counseling to correct this behavior as well as any necessary discipline."
So, we have taken care of bullying, right?
Then why, in the district-wide survey done during parent-teacher conferences late last year, was bullying listed as one of the top concerns of parents?
Because bullying remains a problem. Because schools can't just address bullying in a policy on paper and check it off the list. And parents can't just check off the box on a survey, saying, "It's a problem," and sit back and wait for administrators and teachers to take care of it.
Listen to Anne Parry.
It is part of Parry's job to educate and train teachers, administrators, parents, students and police throughout Chicago. And she is an expert on bullying and how it affects us.
"I'll tell you what I have learned," said Parry, director of the Office of Violence Prevention for the Chicago Department of Public Health. "We all have learned a lot of inappropriate and unkind ways to treat one another, and unwittingly we are passing this on to children."
Parry spoke last week as part of a community forum at the Percy Julian Middle School, organized by the Julian PTO and sponsored by the Wednesday Journal. (Full disclosure here: I co-chair the Julian PTO and I work for one of Wednesday Journal, Inc.'s publications, Chicago Parent.)
She said: "I know some of you are sitting there saying, 'What is the big deal here? I grew up with it. I was bullied. I'm OK. I'm a good person. If we just leave it alone, all will be well. Don't make a mountain out of a mole hill.'
"But bullying is a form of violence and abuse and it is a big deal.
"The latest research is showing that 3- and 4-year-olds are engaged in bullying," Parry said. "It is not limited to one age group. And it is not limited to one gender."
One survey done by the American Association of University Women of children ages 8-11 found 85 percent of the girls and 76 percent of the boys reported that they had experienced some type of harassment.
Children bully because they can; and any parent knows if children think they can get away with something, they will always be testing to see just how far they can push it.
So, Parry sees a connection between bullying, family violence, suicide, homicide and rape.
"The level of risk for our kids today has risen through the roofs. And the rules of the road for how we treat each other have changed as well. ...
"And if we do not nip bullying in the bud in elementary school, we are leaving our children open to much greater risks."
Parry explained that there is direct bullying: teasing, taunting, threatening, hitting and stealing. And there is indirect bullying: intentional exclusion, rumor spreading and enforced social isolation: "We won't play with you, you are too fat."
Bullying thrives for two reasons: Adults tolerate it. "It's not nice but there's not much we can do." And sometimes, adults even encourage it. "He hit you? Then, hit him back harder."
We blame others. We justify it. We rationalize it. We deny it. We minimize it. And we avoid recognizing the problem at all.
What can parents do?
It's as simple and as complicated as this: You have to decide you will not tolerate it any longer. Everyone has to make the decision: parents, administrators, teachers and kids. Then?#34;and this is the complicated part?#34;we have to fit it in amidst the budget worries, the academic concerns and everything else we all have on our plates. And we have to work at what we are going to do together.
It can't be about one incident, one bad boy, one reluctant teacher, one principal, one absent parent, Parry said. It has to be about changing what we accept and tolerate.
Remember that old saying, children learn what they are taught? Well, we have to teach them empathy and compassion.
Parry recommended a school-wide bullying policy that explains bullying will not be tolerated by anyone, regardless of age, gender or position. But it must go beyond paper. It must be what she called "a living policy."
This takes time, reflection and most important, talk.
We have to talk about bullying. Children need to know that the adults around them are worried about the problems they have, and not minimizing them.
But after talk, said Parry, children must see action.
In one Chicago elementary school, Parry said, they decided the action they take would be that everyone?#34;teachers, students, parents, administrators and staff?#34;when they heard any bad comments would say, "It's not OK to bully here."
The school community thought it would take six months to turn around the culture and incorporate that into the day-to-day world. It was wrong. It took three months and the whispers in the lunch line were no longer snickers at other student's expense. Instead, students whispered to one another, "It's not OK to bully here."
"The bad news," Parry said as the evening began and she looked out over the audience of 17, "is that everyone who needs to be here to address this problem is not.
"The good news is that you all are here. And it can start with you. Remember what Margaret Mead said, 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: Indeed it's the only thing that ever has.'"
Susy Schultz is associate publisher and editor of Chicago Parent. Parts of this article appear in the February edition of Chicago Parent.