Mind and Body

Standing up to bullies

Rhode Island Kids Count delivers new issue brief on bullying in Rhode Island, but Ken Wagner, commissioner of the R.I. Department of Education, helped to frame the issue in the age of Trump

Photo by Richard Asinof

Ken Wagner, commissioner of the R.I. Department of Education, addressing the participants at the release of the Rhode Island Kids Count issue brief on "Preventing Bullying in Rhode Island Schools."

By Richard Asinof
Posted 12/12/16
The election of Donald Trump as President is a teachable moment for students, according to Ken Wagner, commissioner of the R.I. Department of Education, learning how to use words instead of wanting to punch someone in the face, in remarks at the release of an issue brief on preventing bullying in Rhode Island.
What is the best way to explore the data around sexual violence and its relationship to bullying in schools? What are the methods being employed by restorative justice initiatives to create a different framework around suspensions? How do the programs in schools suggest that students respond to electronic bullying? Are there comparable statistics related to bullying in the workplace?
What is the best way to stand up to someone, as an adult, to bullying and intimidation that occurs in the workplace, when abusive behavior occurs? As much as Rhode Island Kids Count focuses on childhood well being, the problems of bullying and abusive behavior all too often occur in the workplace, too. In addition to its latest summit on cybersecurity, would the Providence Business News be willing to undertake a summit on the prevalence of cyberbullying?

PROVIDENCE – The release of the new issue brief on Dec. 6, “Preventing Bullying in Rhode Island Schools” by Rhode Island Kids Count, was well managed and well covered by the news media.

It received coverage the day of the event by The Providence Journal, GoLocalProv, Rhode Island Public Radio, WPRI and WPRO, among others, all of which were promptly tweeted and retweeted.

The 16-page issue brief was chock full of data, defining the spectrum of bullying: verbal bullying, relational bullying, electronic cyberbullying, coercion, damage to property and physical bullying, providing a breakdown of students reporting on their experiences of having been bullied in Rhode Island the school year 2013-2014.

In addition, the issue brief explored who were the students who experienced bullying, segmenting the data by grade level, race and ethnicity and gender, and then further breaking down the data according to potential targets of bullying: youth with disabilities, youth who are overweight or obese, youth who are LBGT.

The issue brief then explored the relationships between those who are bullied and those who are perpetrators of bullying.

The issue brief also included its own section on cyberbullying, a discussion of the implications of bullying, and some data around school climate.

Best practices
The second half of the gathering featured presentations by Patti DiCenso, superintendent of the Pawtucket School Department, on the effectiveness of a No Bully program, which included training employees from all 17 of the district’s schools, including some 800 teachers and 220 staff members.

In the first year that No Bully program was in effect, the number of acts of bullying decreased from 59 in 2015 to 20 in the 2016, according to DiCenso.

Thomas Di Paola and Patrick Cozzolino then spoke about the efforts underway in Westerly and South Kingstown, through the implementation of what’s known as the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.

The Westerly Middle School reported a 14.5 percent overall reduction in bullying between 2012 and 2014.

In turn the Washington County Coalition for Children, the region’s child advocacy organization, has led efforts to increase community awareness and create civic engagement around bullying prevention beyond the school walls, including the Chalk It Up Against Bullying initiative, a community arts event in numerous communities.

Charged political atmosphere
When Ken Wagner, the commissioner of the R.I. Department of Education, stepped up to podium, he addressed how the political environment, embodied by the harsh tone of the election, in particular the behavior of President-elect Donald Trump, had become a teachable moment.

After the election, Wagner said, we have to use it as a teachable moment “to help children understand how to model good behavior and to move through difficulty not by punching people in the face, but by working through difficulty, with words and by engaging with each other.”

Bullying in the context of sexual violence
After the event, having read through the issue briefing and the news release, ConvergenceRI wondered if there was any data correlating bullying and sexual violence, particularly violence against women.

Was there any correlation found between sexual violence, including violence against women, and bullying in the data, beyond LBGT inputs? ConvergenceRI asked Katy Chu, the communications director at Rhode Island Kids Count.

Chu responded: “Our issue brief did examine risk factors related to violence that were associated with being bullied on school property.”

According to Chu, the data revealed that:

• Middle school students who were bullied on school property were more likely to have been in a physical fight [42 percent] than those who were not bullied [31 percent].

• High school students who were bullied on school property were twice as likely to experience physical fighting [15 percent vs. 6 percent] and forced sex (17 percent vs. 6 percent] as well.

• Bullied students on school property were also three times as likely to experience dating violence [20 percent vs. 6 percent], carry a weapon at school (9 percent vs. 3 percent], and not attend school due to feeling unsafe [14 percent vs. 4 percent] than their non-bullied peers. In addition, high school students who were bullied on school property were also more likely to engage in unprotected sex [52 percent vs. 36 percent].

Chu added: “Please note that these risk factors show association and not causation. In addition, all differences and values are statistically significant at the 95 percent confidence level.”

Chu also said that Rhode Island Kids Count did have these violence and sexual activity factors cross cut by electronic aggression, i.e., cyberbullying, suggesting that ConvergenceRI reach out to the R.I. Department of Health for that analysis.

ConvergenceRI realized that there needed to be a better, more precise way to ask the question.

Looking at the data broken down by grade level and gender, for instance, for middle school students in 2015, 45 percent of females reported being bullied on school property, compared to 32 percent of males. Further, once again for middle school students in 2015, 30 percent of females reported that they had been bullied electronically, compared to 12 percent of males.

Correlations with lead poisoning
ConvergenceRI also wondered if there any correlations in the data related to elevated blood lead levels, given the way that behavior problems resulting from lead poisoning tend to increase over time.

Was there any data around correlation of lead poisoning and bullying? ConvergenceRI asked Chu, noting that there was some data around how the disabilities caused by lead poisoning become magnified as kids get older and enter adolescence, particularly in terms of disruptive behavior and a tendency toward violence.

Chu responded: “We do not have any data that speaks to a connection between lead poisoning exposure and bullying explicitly in our issue brief. We did highlight the connection between being bullied and having a disability, either physical or emotional/learning.”

• In 2015 in Rhode Island, 25 percent of high school students who had been bullied on school property reported having a long-term emotional problem or learning disability.

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