“Unslut”-Sexual Bullying in Schools

Unknown-1The other day on NPR I listened to an interview with a woman who uses the fictitious name Emily Linden and wrote a wrote a book called “Unslut”. The book is a memoir based on Emily’s diary entries when she was between 6th and 8th grades and it chronicles the sexual bullying and peer pressure she faced growing up. If parents, tweens, teens and educators don’t read the book they should at the very least explore the subject matter and its prevalence with our kids in schools today.

Emily began puberty earlier than most of her peers. She had her period when she was 10 and developed breasts soon after. She says that both boys and girls were fascinated with the physical transformation of her body and she was viewed by many peers who had not yet begun to mature as a sexual anomaly. Emily’s curiosity about herself and the opposite sex heightened too as she continued to progress through puberty. She flirted, developed relationships with the opposite sex and experimented by going to “3rd base”.

It did not take long for Emily to find herself caught up in a vicious cycle of sexual bullying because of her perceived actions and the stigma that was associated with her early sexual development. She quickly found herself being labeled a “tease” and a “slut” by her peers, and for many years she lived with the reputation and the pain that ensued.

Emily explains that at the time she too engaged in the sexual bullying that was so destructive to her. She says that there was a culture of sexual bullying in school that seemed like a norm, that no one was immune from it and many would partake in. There was such a need to identify with a group, in Emily’s case the popular kids, that it made her lose site of who she really was and the values that truly defined her.

This culture exists to this very day and the power of social media, where damaging words or images can be spread in a blink of an eye, makes it even more destructive and dangerous.  What can we do as parents? We have to try to break this collective negative culture where it’s cool to put people down, spread rumors, and define a person or a group by one identifiable word.  The jocks, the nerds, the popular kids, the fast kids, the loners, the druggies. When we peg people by one identifiable word we become immune to the fact that people have many positive attributes that deserve to be explored. What about talking to our kids about developing new relationships and breaking down barriers between groups in an attempt to rid themselves of negative perceptions? In the interview Emily states that the people that you’re hanging your identity on really don’t matter and in her case did not remain her friends as she worked on defining her values.

We also need to help to teach our kids about positive and respectful ideas of female and male empowerment.  Girls, it does not come in the form of an Instagram picture of yourselves with pouty lips and cleavage showing and boys, you are not empowering yourselves by posting images of yourselves engaged in the latest make out sessions. But when kids seem to be trying to race to the sexual maturity finish line with the Kardashians and the lascivious fictional characters from Gossip Girls in tow, what should we expect?

The reality is that in the middle school years our kids are coming into a new stage of development and exploration that should be expected by parents and doesn’t have to be negative. It’s up to us to empower our kids by helping them to develop a strong value system and the integrity that keeps it in place as they navigate through the sometimes perilous but often rewarding years of puberty.

http://www.unslutproject.com

 

Parent Engagement: A Two-Way Street

imagesI’ve been on a hiatus from writing my blog lately,  a self-imposed exile from doing something that I really enjoy doing, writing and sharing information about health and wellness as it pertains to kids. The reason being? A malady that I came down with a couple of months ago. It left me tired to the bone, anxious, deflated, hopeless, and uncertain of the future. The clinical name for this malady is PVBO or Parent Volunteer Burn Out and I’ve had a pretty bad case of it. It’s only been over the past week or two that I’ve been able to peel myself off the couch and stop my endless re-reading  of”Waiting for Godot”. Parent Engagement is a difficult challenge that School Districts across the nation face. I hear the rumblings in our District on a regular basis. We’ve even got a District appointed Director of Community Engagement whose plate is full when it comes to reaching out to families in our communities. Families whose challenges of everyday life present a greater problem than worrying about the next PTA meeting, whether or not homework is done, or if a child is even on the bus in the morning. Many feel hopeless in their own situations so why would they think their efforts could improve the outcomes in our schools? On the other side of the spectrum you have the actively engaged parents who are ready to do anything to improve schools and they can be counted on for involvement on a number of different levels, joining committees, working on various initiatives, helping to raise money, advocating at Board meetings, etc. You name it and they do it because they believe in getting things done and that change is possible in their lifetimes or better yet in the time that their children are attending public schools.  There are probably a handful of these parents in any given community and they’re probably the last group that you would think would benefit from the acknowledgement that parent engagement is a two way street. Unfortunately it’s a costly mistake when dealing with volunteers and it has a precarious ability to drive a parent to that all-consuming malady, PVBO. I don’t have a one-stop solution to solving the issues that Districts face when dealing with parent engagement but I could try to offer a bit of support and advice. When dealing with our underprivileged and underserved families we need to do a better job of taking services to the affected neighborhoods, breaking down socioeconomic stigmas and language barriers, and learn to communicate effectively to get families the supports they need. As I mentioned earlier in this post, our District has appointed people who are doing just that but the needs are far greater than what a few can fulfill. With the PVBO’s we need to recognize that many are taking time away from paid work or other responsibilities and we need to consistently recognize their efforts. A simple return of a call or an email of acknowledgement would probably suffice for a lot of these parents. When hours of work have been done on  forward thinking initiatives that would benefit the whole school community we should respectfully and openly address why things are not moving forward. It is a poor reflection on any District to have a volunteer, a parent, a person on the “outside” muttering how it’s business as usual, nothing ever gets done and we seem to be stuck in a Beckett world just waiting for Godot.

Fixing What’s Broken in our Schools

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The other day I watched an excellent documentary called “180 Days: Hartsville”. It was about a school district in a small South Carolina town that, despite high poverty rates and low employment has turned into a success with a 92% graduation rate.

Adversities

In the community of Hartsville you have to work 100 hours each week at a minimum wage paying job to meet the median income of $38,000. Parents are stuck in an endless cycle of struggle as they try to keep their heads above water, working multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Family time is compromised and the result is a lack of structure in the home for many. In Hartsville, these societal adversities were directly impacting performance in the schools. They knew they were in need of major reform in order to rescue their students and community from a system that was failing them.

Focus Lost  

images-8What Hartsville points out they were doing wrong was multi faceted and could apply to many school districts. Simply put they had lost focus on the whole child and they had failed to recognize all of the factors that influence behaviors in schools.

Hartsville educators felt like they had been forced into an “unhealthy relationship with an overreaching federal government that rewarded states for adopting common core”. While they understood that we live in a data driven society and that a certain level of importance would always be placed on these metrics, they realized that their students needed to be worked with as human beings, not pieces of data.

The educators in Hartsville also realized that many of their students were burdened with issues from their home lives that directly affected their behavior in the classroom. Overworked parents with little to no involvement in their kids’ lives resulted in a lack of structure surrounding time out of school for many. Additionally, because of the hardships that many in the community faced, the level of parent engagement within the schools was virtually non-existent.

As educators they were tackling  these issues alone and they were getting nowhere. They realized that there were many contributors to their failures and there needed to be many contributors to their successes. They knew that they had to grow their foundation of stakeholders for successful reform. Business leaders, community members, parents, educators and students all had to be a part of the solution and the drive to success. The idea of school as a reflection of community needed to be a focus and a goal.

Embracing Changeimages-7

The Hartsville schools set out to establish a framework of positivity. They embraced the notion that “the ultimate measure of success was in the holistic well being of the child.” They began to celebrate student achievement and successes in the classroom. They validated students by emphasizing their ability to be positive contributors to their schools and their communities. They were consistent with the affirmation that all students, no matter what their background, were capable of success. One school Principal started her entire student body off on the Honor Roll at the beginning of the school year to show that they were all fully capable. They used their testing data not to show deficits but to find solutions, encourage and showcase successes.

They also looked at the role of leadership differently. There was still a hierarchy of teacher, principal and superintendent, but the emphasis shifted from being in power to that of empowering.  This approach enabled them to establish a foundation of healthy challenge, encouragement, and reward.

The Hartsville schools also changed their approach to parent engagement. They began to view parents as part of the solution not part of the problem. They sought out open communication and asked parents what was working, what wasn’t working, and what could be improved.  They also went directly into the neighborhoods of the families they served instead of asking the parents to come to them. They broke down the barrier of “us against them” and allowed the parents to feel like they had a voice and a stake in the success of their children and the schools as a whole.

In implementing and embracing these changes the Hartsville schools moved from a district that had been ranked below average in 2010 to a district of excellence in 2013.

What’s Happening in Buffalo

images-9Although Buffalo is a much larger urban district, there are many parallels with that of Hartsville’s district prior to reform.  The Buffalo Public School District has a graduation rate of 53%. More than half our kids live in poverty, unemployment rates are high, and many kids deal with absentee parenting because family members work long hours at multiple jobs.

Like the Hartsville of 2010, our district is also failing because we have lost focus on the students.  Very rarely will you read an article that casts our schools or students in a positive light. As a district and a community we could be doing a lot better at celebrating  successes. We could also do a better job of treating our students as individuals with issues that can directly influence their behavior and their performance in school. Just last week there was an article in The Buffalo News about a student who had behavioral issues and struggled in class. He is now 15 and repeating 6th grade for the 3rd time. Our district’s response to this student was  to write him off. It wasn’t until the student’s mother reached out to a parent organization and the article appeared in the paper, that the student was removed  and placed into a different school with the appropriate resources to help him succeed.

We also have a school board that is in dire need of reform. They are so insistent on name calling and divisiveness that they simply don’t have the time to focus on real issues like the reality of why our schools are failing. Our Board needs to be a part of the solution not a part of the problem, and they should be working collectively to set a standard of excellence for our students and our community.

Any community that is dealing with a failing district  really needs to take a step back and  look to examples like Hartsville. We have to change our focus and start to embrace the model of whole child, whole school, whole community. We are fortunate to have a small but growing group within our school district and community that is committed to this idea of reform, but we need more stake holders and more buy in to realize the full potential that this paradigm shift has to offer.

http://video.pbs.org/video/2365401829/

About Leelah

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Yesterday was the most glorious sunny Sunday in Buffalo NY. The temp hit 30 after about 2 months of bone chilling weather and I walked outside with my daughter feeling happy to be alive. I had just written a blog entry about cyber bullying and my daughter and I were discussing the topic when I told her I wanted to share a story. It was about a girl named Leelah.

Leelah died recently after throwing herself in front of a truck on a lonely, dark stretch of road not far from her house. She did not feel happy to be alive. Leelah had been born, Josh Acorn, a boy, and since the age of 4 she had constantly struggled with gender identity issues.  Her biggest wish in life was to transition to a girl and be accepted as Leelah, a kind, artistic, and intelligent young woman.

Sadly, Leelah’s parents did not support her wish to transition. “We don’t support that, religiously,” is what her mother stated after her daughter was already dead. In an interview she continuously referred to Leelah as her son. No acceptance.

Initially it appears that Leelah found  support amongst her peers. In a school environment where often times it seems  kids are ridiculed for being different as opposed to celebrated for their uniqueness, this is to be commended. But the support waned as her parents cut her off from school, social media, and her friends, and Leelah became more and more isolated.

Had Leelah’s parents not cut her off from everything, would she have had access to a supportive LGBT group at her school, in her community? What resources were available to her? If you go to the school’s web site: (http://www.kingslocal.net/Schools/KHS/Pages/default.aspx), it appears they have a lot of different clubs: everything from ski, yearbook, and philanthropy clubs to film, anime, and self defense clubs. Do they have an LGBT club? Does your child’s school have one? I’d like to think that in the face of this tragedy they’ve begun an LGBT club at Leelah’s school. My daughter’s school has a gay straight alliance and they offer resources for transgender students as well. There is a high level of student involvement within this group.

We need to be doing a better job in our schools and our communities to support these kids. When they come out and live as the person they want to be they need to be fully supported and their commitment to diversity needs to be applauded.

http://www.glyswny.org

http://www.lgbtcenters.org

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Justice-for-Leelah-Alcorn/752262548182134

I’m Sick of Smelling Like Peppermint

shutterstock_230559166I thought it was a good idea when I purchased my organic peppermint deodorant over the holidays. It was 11 bucks but well worth the purchase price to protect myself against the harmful aluminum in regular deodorants that can contribute to Alzheimer’s.  Now I’m done smelling like a Christmas tree and so is my daughter. Not to say that she’s abandoning hygiene. She’s  embracing it to an extreme! But this wasn’t so only a few short years ago. When my daughter was in the 7-10 age bracket she had a very different relationship with water. Hand washing, showers, teeth brushing, and general cleansing simply did not agree with her. It was like the commingling of nuts and raisins or peas and carrots. Some people feel that they just shouldn’t be mixed. So I had the arduous task of trying to instill an understanding of the importance of proper hygiene in my child. During those years that I fought my battle I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great if this was part of a health curriculum that was being taught on a regular basis to kids in school? Doesn’t it seem like it should be a basic right for our kids to receive this fundamental information? Sadly as a society we think differently. If your school district has a mandated health curriculum that is offered on a regular basis from grades K-12 you are lucky. I guess our district feels that that education should happen at home. But what about the kids who don’t have that level of parent engagement? In our district those kids are in the majority. That’s right. MAJORITY. An adopted health curriculum that follows a student from K-12 is a necessity. It should not be viewed as an option.

Last year for several days I worked with a group of dedicated teachers and administrators to adopt a health curriculum. I’ll be honest, the work was tedious and difficult but the end result was that we selected on a company that could provide our district with the necessary materials. That was half the battle. Next is getting our school board to agree with us that these materials are necessary to properly educate our kids and move us towards adopting the foundation of whole child, whole school, whole community. I for one will be at that meeting imploring the board to find the money to support this very important initiative.