Albany Organizes Against Bullying

School-yard bullying is once again at the forefront of national discourse as a result of recent tragedies. This is partially due to its connection to the ongoing gun-control conversation, but it remains a very serious topic individually – one we should consider for its own, separate reasons. The Greater Albany Public School District has had enough, and it’s taking notable action to reduce bullying on its campus.

Research has determined that bullied children have a higher risk of falling victim to a multitude of problems; this of course includes anxiety, depression, and suicide. But bullying can also have a negative impact on a student’s physical health, the effects of which can last well into adulthood.

The Albany School District Anti-Bullying and Anti-Harassment task force was assembled in January in response to concerned parents. The district has enlisted help from the Albany Police Department, the Linn County Sheriff’s Department, Linn County Mental Health, the City of Albany, and other area groups to construct a definitive list of solutions to reduce bullying. The group has met three times since and has now delivered their recommendations to the school board.

Their recommendations are: “focus on positive school culture and climate, establish and enforce clear rules and policies that address bullying, provide training in bullying prevention and appropriate responses to administrators and staff, respond consistently and appropriately when bullying happens, coordinate prevention efforts, and continue efforts over time.”

Rich Sipe is one of the four district representatives who helped assemble and oversee the task force. He’s a 34-year educator, a former principal at Liberty Elementary in Albany, and currently serving as a human resources administrator for the district. The other three district leads are principals from various schools in Albany.

Sipe has seen bullying change, if not become worse entirely, throughout his years in education. Bullying has traditionally been seen to mostly affect middle school students, but Sipe and the task force have found that most bullying occurs at the elementary school level. As these children age and start to have more of a social media presence, negative behaviors can travel with them and become more severe.

“We are hoping to address bullying in elementary school through curriculum and culture, and that will eliminate bullying as kids get older and go through middle school and high school,” explained Sipe.

The task force’s top recommendation is to focus on culture and climate in schools, which includes adopting a social and emotional learning curriculum that will reinforce the importance of positive relationships. The task force believes that respect can be taught along with math and social studies to forge a more harmonious and connected student body.

While a variety of K-5 curriculums are being explored by the district, the Stanford Harmony program is being heavily considered. This program creates situations for children to engage with each other on a personal level and prioritizes conflict resolution.

“If we’re truly to have an anti-bullying and anti-harassment culture, we have to deliver that message consistently and regularly throughout the year. That might take different forms at an elementary school, middle school, or a high school, but it basically has to become a priority,” said Sipe.

The task force has also made recommendations to standardize policies throughout the district regarding expectations, enforcement, and response time. While anti-bullying curriculum might vary between age groups, the district would like its commitment to the issue to be uniform.

To make the dramatic changes that the district, task force, and parents necessitate, school faculty and staff will need to undergo training in order to more effectively recognize bullying and intervene. They will be trained to identify bullying, which the task force defines as “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths that involves a perceived power imbalance, and is repeated multiple times or is likely to be repeated.” They will also be trained in the procedure for reporting bullying and parent communication protocol. 

Sipe says this training will happen before the next school year, and he wants to see the task force’s full list of recommendations take effect after that.

The district will have an analogous method for data collection on bullying, and will use this information to measure their progress. While the Anti-Bullying Task Force has completed its primary goal of recommending solutions to the board, it will continue to meet twice a year to inspect the district’s proficiency and make additional recommendations if necessary.

The task force originally intended to look to other school districts for guidance, but Sipe said that other districts in the state were either in the same stages of confronting this problem, or they have yet to devote the time and resources to the issue that Albany has. If these policies are effective, Sipe hopes that Albany can be a guide and a resource to other districts who hope to combat bullying in the future.

It was the Albany community who ultimately answered when the schools and parents called for help. Law enforcement, mental health experts, boys and girls clubs, local government, and the religious community all partnered with the district to formulate solutions to this relentless problem. Healthy schools make a community strong, and in this case, a unified community has stepped up to help make these kids’ lives and futures look a little brighter.

By Jay Sharpe