Creating a Safe School Environment with Facing History and Ourselves

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - 3:00am

Only a few weeks into the 2012/2013 school year, high school principal Bruce Bivins noticed an unsettling change on the Academy of Environmental and Social Policy (ESP) campus.

“As soon as school started, we began seeing an unprecedented increase in bullying behavior and talk,” the Los Angeles-based principal said. “Name-calling to peers, subtle bumping in the hallways, talking back to staff, students feeling harassed on the bus.”

ESP's all-school anti-bullying assembly, fall 2012The beginnings of the Stand Up For The Silent Brick Wall, one of the action items ESP teachers and students came up with at Facing History's Bully Summit.Bruce Bivins (in black t-shirt) makes action plans with students, teachers at Facing History's 2012 Bully Summit. Photo courtesy of Maya Myers Photography.

Bivins knew he needed to turn this around, but he didn’t know where to begin. The only thing he was certain of was that he wanted his students to lead the change.

ESP is a new urban high school in Los Angeles, California. The school was established three years ago within Roosevelt High School as part of one of the largest public school turnaround projects in the nation, aimed at increasing academic achievement and reducing dropout rates. The school struggles with issues plaguing urban districts around the world: students testing below grade level, budget cuts, and limited staff and resources. Despite the challenges, Bivins had always described the school climate as accepting and collaborative.

Knowing that his school was capable of being a caring educational community, he was not willing to let bullying and name-calling change the environment.

That is why, when he heard about an upcoming school summit on bullying, Bivins reached out to Facing History and Ourselves in Los Angeles. Hosted by Facing History, the full-day event would bring together students and staff from 25 local area high schools to talk about the causes and impact of bullying and develop school-wide action plans to combat it.

“I knew that I wanted my students to hear from other students about bullying and how it impacts them,” said Bivins, who had not worked with Facing History before the event. “Immediately I reached out. I knew we needed to do something to create a just community on campus.”

Bivins brought a group of students, parents, and teachers to “The BULLY Summit: Fostering Empathy and Action In Schools,” held on September 29, 2012, at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools. The day kicked off with a viewing of the documentary film BULLY, for which Facing History was an educational partner and produced the free resource, A Guide to the Film BULLY: Fostering Empathy and Action in Schools, to help educators, parents, and communities foster safe school environments. Following the screening, everyone broke into separate groups: students joined with other students from different schools, teachers talked with other teachers, parents spoke with other parents, and Bivins gathered with other administrators from around the city. “We talked about action steps we could take as whole school communities,” he said. “It was very helpful hearing how other administrators were thinking about these problems.” Afterward, the students, teachers, and administrators from each school reconvened to develop ideas they could carry out immediately back on campus. Bivins’ group came up with a school-wide art project they called the “Stand Up for the Silent Brick Wall” and decided to host an all-day, all-school assembly on bullying. “It was empowering to see the teachers and the students in conversation together in an effort to create a real shift on campus–in an effort to change something that was not indicative of the school we’d established,” Bivins said.

Like all the schools who participated in the summit, Bivins took all 350 of his students to see BULLY in theatres in October, 2012. After the screening, the whole school met back on campus for the all-day assembly, facilitated by the students that had attended the summit. “They talked about their experience at the summit and the changes that they wanted to make on campus,” Bivins said.

By Thanksgiving break–barely two months after the summit–changes were already in place. The students began building the “Stand Up for the Silent Brick Wall.” The idea was simple, but powerful. “Every student made a pledge and wrote it on a brick and signed it,” Bivins explained. The students are currently building the wall in a high traffic area of the school.

Another change was the start of a student mentoring program. “In the past, it’s been hard to get student enthusiasm up for mentoring,” Bivins said. The program matches juniors and seniors with underclassmen and kicked off this fall with a student-run ping-pong tournament. “What they’ve done here will allow younger students to connect with older students on campus through games and activities. It will provide role models and will break down barriers,” Bivins said. “It’s an activity that reinforces a culture of togetherness.”

“Ours is a tiny school,” said ESP junior Cynthia Gomez, who attended the summit and is helping to lead the change on campus. “I didn’t like what I was seeing–our tiny school out of nowhere turning into a place where you’d see stuff on the internet and things happening in the bathrooms. I wanted to do something before it got any worse. And I’m not saying it’s going to change, like, from night to morning, but what I’m seeing is that it’s getting better. I’m seeing, I’d say, 50% less bullying now–on the internet and in the hallways.”

In addition to the extracurricular changes, teachers at the school are bringing the topic of bullying into the classroom curriculum. Ninth grade English teacher Rebecca Pellman recently completed a two and a half-week unit on bullying that included research and writing assignments. Her students read the classic novel Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck and discussed issues of disempowerment. Then students did a research project that had them looking at historical and current instances of bullying. The unit concluded with a final project in which each student presented recommendations on how different groups–parents, principals, or students–could address the issue at home, in school, or in the community. “We tied these into the English Language Arts Common Core standards–the ideas the students presented had to come from their research. They had to find credible sources,” Pellman said. “It’s really important to me that the projects we do are based on developing skills and applying them. This project not only did that, but it also showed the students that they can take action. That they can stand up and say something.”

Since the summit in September, Bivins said that he’s seen bullying decrease and tolerance and awareness increase.

“I have just seen a huge drop in the past two months,” he said. “Instances of disciplinary action have decreased. We’ve seen fewer violent acts, fewer instances of drug and alcohol use. And I’ve seen a culture of responsibility emerge.”

He attributes much of the success on campus to the summit and the follow-up support that Facing History provided his staff after it. “Here was a principal who had the desire, but not the tools or resources to do what he wanted to do, which was to create a safe school culture and a culture that empowered students to make change,” said Facing History Program Associate Dan Alba, who helped to facilitate the ESP all-day assembly and did a workshop with school staff that introduced resources to discuss bullying in the classroom and strategies to foster safe school culture. “I think that’s what Facing History is able to do and I think that’s why he looked to us when he came to the summit. We have resources and approaches that help administrators and teachers bring student voices out, ask questions, and reflect on their role in community.”

“We’re spending a lot of time this year dealing with these issues of bullying and it’s important to me that our students and teachers see that,” Bivins said. “If we get caught up in bullying behavior, we get away from our real goal here, which is that school needs to be a safe space so that we can get to the heart of the matter: learning and success.” 

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This article was written by Facing History’s Julia Rappaport. For questions or tips on what Facing History is doing in your community, email her at Julia_Rappaport@facing.org.