Back to school without bullying?

When Sumi Mukherjee travels to schools throughout Minnesota to talk about his experience with years of childhood bullying growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he starts the conversation the same way each time.

“How many of you have been bullied?” he asks.

The Plymouth-based writer and speaker then sees about half of his young audience members raise their hands.

“If you haven’t been bullied yourself, how many of you have witnessed bullying or seen bullying happen?” 

For the second question, almost every hand in the room is raised.

While it’s been nearly 20 years since Mukherjee graduated from high school — and moved past the torment that caused him to develop obsessive-compulsive disorder — bullying is still a serious issue in Minnesota schools.

In recent years, a series of high-profile bullying incidents and teen suicides outside the Twin Cities helped heighten awareness of the issue on a national level while also catching the attention of local lawmakers.

As a result, this past April, the state Legislature passed the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act. 

That means students heading back to public school this fall will be governed by a new anti-bullying law, which defines bullying as a pattern of “intimidating, threatening, abusive or harming conduct that is objectively offensive.” 

Under the law, schools are required to establish their own policies and programs for preventing and quickly responding to reports of bullying. Schools that don’t want to develop their own policies can follow a model policy developed by the state. 

 

EFFORTS TO CREATE CHANGE

Parents may not immediately notice changes in school bullying policies, however, because some schools have already beefed up their anti-bullying efforts.

The Minneapolis Public Schools district, for example, has been proactive in its approach to bullying prevention and intervention, said Julie Young-Burns, a safe and drug-free schools coordinator.

Because the district was involved in lobbying for the changes made to the bullying law, it’s well positioned to align with the new rules, which also address cyber bullying and intimidation.

Bullying prevention, Young-Burns said, starts with encouraging the development of empathy. 

Teaching kids to understand how others are feeling and how their actions can impact others can help reduce harm. It also can make kids more likely to stand up for fellow classmates, she said.

Mixed messages in the media and at home about how to achieve success in the grown-up world can make it a challenge for kids to understand how to act, she said. Kids may think they can get ahead by being aggressive, showing power or exerting control.

“It’s a matter of balancing that with the power and value of being kind — and not getting your needs met at the expense of someone else’s,” she said.

Another tenet of the district’s approach is an emphasis on social and emotional learning. Young-Burns said students are learning skills and strategies in the classroom in hopes they’ll be applied outside of school.

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell what bullying is, Young-Burns said. But often it’s about an imbalance of power.

“When we see two kids in conflict going back and forth, it’s a little bit of juggling of control or power, or what might be considered humor or a display of affection that gets out of hand,” she said.

Young-Burns said one way for parents and teachers to tell whether an action constitutes bullying is if a student can’t make it stop. If telling someone to stop doesn’t curb the behavior, it’s a problem. 

Students then need to know where to turn for help. Under the new law, schools must designate a staff member as a primary contact to receive reports of bullying behavior. School employees who witness bullying, meanwhile, are required to report the behavior under the law.

 

BEYOND BULLYING

Walter Roberts, a professor of school counseling at Minnesota State University-Mankato said districts can create or adopt policies that reflect their schools’ values while also complying with the law. 

Roberts, who co-chaired a task force established by Gov. Mark Dayton to address the state’s school bullying laws, doesn’t think schools will have trouble meeting the law’s minimum requirements.

He said districts should adopt tried-and-true programs used in other schools that have a track record of being useful for all students. 

Some programs aren’t singularly focused on bullying, he said. In fact, they help with a variety of behavioral problems and help kids “be respectful, solve problems in the absence of conflict and de-escalate conflict,” Roberts said. 

Though the new law is set to take effect with the 2014-15 school year, change at some schools may be gradual, said Monica Herrera, director of safety, health and nutrition for the Minnesota Department of Education.

 “Schools get a lot thrown at them,” Herrera said. “It will take a while to see how this fits current culture and what they need to modify.” 

The law also calls for the establishment of a new School Safety Technical Assistance Center to help students, parents and schools with bullying prevention and education efforts. It’s set to be online later this year, Herrera said. 

 

RESTORATIVE JUSTICE

Minnesota’s new law encourages remedial responses over punitive measures, also referred to as restorative justice. 

Restorative justice means helping the child taking part in bullying behavior as well as the child hurt by it.

“Individuals who intimidate others and who bully others have some issues that we need to look at,” Roberts said.

In Minneapolis schools, the district encourages solutions that don’t focus as much on punishment, Young-Burns said.

Children and parents are involved to discuss the situation. And everyone involved works to help the child who’s been harmed, repair the relationship and restore a balance of power. 

Some children simply may not realize they’ve harmed others. And some kids involved in negative behaviors may have been victims in the past, she said.

“Sometimes, because they have themselves been bullied, they end up doing the same thing back to someone else,” Young-Burns said.

 

CONSEQUENCES OF TORMET

Starting when he was in kindergarten in the Plymouth school district, Mukherjee was a victim of bullying.

Children quickly latched on to his unusual name, appearance and other aspects of his race and ethnicity as grounds for harassment. Mukherjee, whose parents are from India, said he was the only person who looked different growing up.

“It was extremely difficult to focus on what I was there for, which was to learn,” he said. “I was dealing with all of these other hassles: How am I going to deal with this person or these people coming at me?”

After years of being told he was ugly by his classmates, Mukherjee struggled with deep self-esteem issues. Even today at 38 years old, he still fights those negative feelings.

Mukherjee developed an obsessive-compulsive disorder as a result of years of physical and emotional harassment at school, he said. 

In his new book, A Life Interrupted: The Story of My Battle with Bullying and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, he chronicles his experiences.

He said, it’s easy to feel like “giving up and falling into a trap — where you feel like the only option is to give up and to leave this world.” 

His goal is to share his story because many other victims of bullying are no longer alive. He hopes to “do something positive and inspire some positive change.”

 

PARENT'S ROLE

This fall, as kids head back to school, parents should feel welcome to reach out to their child’s school if they have concerns about bullying. 

Minnesota’s new law specifically requires schools to engage and respond to parents as part of bullying prevention, Roberts said.

“Bullying is a community problem, it’s not just a school problem,” he said. 

Mukherjee’s repeated attempts to call attention to the bullying at his school weren’t addressed by most administrators and teachers. 

But his parents never gave up the cause. They took his concerns seriously and never made him feel like he was making an unnecessary fuss.

“[They said] ‘We know you’re really struggling and you don’t deserve to struggle like this,’ ” Mukherjee said.

Parents should be involved with the school and keep talking with counselors, administrators and teachers until someone is willing to listen, Mukherjee said. 

Many times schools will try to lessen the severity of the incidents by telling parents that the kids are just being kids.

But Mukherjee said bullying isn’t a rite of passage — and parents should make that clear by validating their child’s feelings.

“Let them know that what is happening to them is not trivial in your eyes, even if you’re not having success,” he said.