“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

 

Sex Ed for Kindergartners? The Dutch Model

Take a look at the following article about the Dutch and their approach to teaching sexuality in schools and in their communities in general. No surprise that their rates of teen pregnancy and STD’s are some of the lowest in the world. They present frank subject matter in a proper context from a young age and bring parents into the mix to inform and help in the sexual education of their children. What an incredible model to adopt.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/spring-fever/

Keeping it Real With Condoms

images-3I’m finding a lot of good stuff to bring to people’s attention today. I also like to write about condoms which you might have noticed. In the article below there’s a 14 year old’s response to a condom survey. I guess the teacher wasn’t too happy  but I’ll  bet it would speak to a group of her peers.

http://elitedaily.com/news/world/teen-amazing-responses-no-condoms/1022735/?utm_source=comp&utm_medium=tr&utm_campaign=p10k80

Check this one out too. There was an outbreak of chlamydia in a school that teaches kids to practice abstinence. Hmm… think they’re curriculum is affective? The condoms in their community certainly aren’t.

http://thinkprogress.org/health/2015/05/04/3654650/outbreak-texas-sex-ed/

We’ve really got to wake up and change the way we educate our kids about sexual health.

Focusing on the Positive in the Classroom? Who’d a Thunk.

imagesI read something really great in the paper today. A charter school in Western NY has received a $575,000 grant from the US Department of Education to change the way they approach student behavior in the classroom. The school is going to be using a model called “Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support”. Instead of focusing on negative, punitive methods,  a common theme in classrooms nation wide, they will  adopt methods of positivity, praise, and reward to improve student teacher relationships, and the classroom environment in general. In preparation the school has been training faculty and staff on rewards-based solutions for positive behavior.  The idea is that if  kids are praised for a job well done they will feel greater self worth and be more committed to contributing positively in the classroom. This approach is based on the fact that student behavior is influenced by many factors and that we need to look at the individual student as we work towards a very necessary shift towards the model of “Whole Child, Whole School, Whole Community”. A foundation of wellness. Doesn’t it just make sense?

http://www.buffalonews.com/city-region/applied-technologies-charter-school-gets-575000-federal-grant-20150505

Giving Students A Voice

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I hear a lot about what’s wrong with our public education system in NYS from teachers, board members, and people in our state and local government. It’s usually delivered as a messy tangle of invective, finger pointing and name calling and it gets us nowhere. I’m always amazed by how infrequently I hear the voices of the students, many of whom are dealing with peer pressure, lack of resources, no parental support and teachers who have given up on them. If we would all stop and listen to the kids I think we’d find a very clear message of what their challenges are and how they affect school performance.

Below is a link to something our District is doing to give the kids a voice. Take a minute to listen then propose it to your District.

http://news.wbfo.org/post/focus-education-student-voices-part-i

Changing School Food

A friend just shared this wonderful article with me about a woman in Detroit who did an incredible job of transforming school food. More out-of-the-box thinking is what we need if we’re going to change our current system. I know in our District that we’re too bogged down with Federal guidelines and state audits. How great would out be if we said good bye to the federally subsidized school lunch program and gained more control over the foods we offer our kids?

http://civileats.com/2015/04/06/how-one-visionary-changed-school-food-in-detroit/

Behind Closed Doors

images-11I know of a little girl who just had her 6th birthday. When she got home from school on her birthday, the day that so many kids wait for in wild anticipation, her mom wasn’t standing there with presents and cake. Instead she was lying on the floor in a catatonic state because she was so high on drugs. This was all too familiar a scene in the little girls life. Sadly she had grown used to the fact that there would be no celebration for her special day, and she also knew there would probably not be any dinner.

This girl’s mom had been in and out of jail on drug charges. Her dad was absent from her life. She and her 2 older siblings all had different fathers. Her house was filled with smoke and strangers would come and go on a regular basis. There was no refrigerator and one of the sinks was broken but there was no money to replace or fix these things. She had her own room but no one ever put her to bed and she would often put her head down on her desk at school and sleep. There were also mental health issues that both her mom and older sister dealt with.

I know of this story because I have a friend who acts as a mentor to the little girl. She takes her to places like the botanical gardens, the ice skating rink, and the park. Sometimes they just stay at home and play together. Often times the only consistency and engagement in her life comes from these regularly planned weekly visits.

My friend got involved in this mentorship through a social services organization called Compeer, (http://www.compeerbuffalo.org). Their mission is to pair volunteer “friends” to build relationships with people in need and improve their lives and mental health through engagement. Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America, (http://www.bbbs.org),is another service that aims to build a system of support around kids in need.

My friend has been involved with the little girl through Compeer for 2 years now. What was happening in her life previous to this is anyone’s guess. The sad thing is that this child isn’t alone. In our district there are thousands of stories similar to this and even worse.

I will never forget the day last year when the nurse from my youngest daughter’s school called and said a terrible tragedy had occurred and one of my 6 year old’s classmates was no longer with them. His mother, suffering from mental illness, had killed him in the middle of the night as he lay sleeping. For anyone who knew this vivacious little boy, the only boy who could play Magic Faries on the playground with the girls because he was the King, it was impossible to conceive.

We were lucky that the school did an amazing job of making grief and guidance counselors available to parents and students for many days after this tragic event. The school also went above and beyond to provide the little boy with a consistent and safe environment, one that was missing in his life outside of school.What failed him was Child Protection Services, the organization that is supposed to help and protect children within our community who are in danger of neglect and abuse. They dropped the ball numerous times when concerned relatives called them and instead offered the excuse that they were overworked and understaffed.

It is inexcusable but it happens and in our community that very year, my daughter’s  classmate was but one of a handful of children who had been ignored by CPS. This example points to why it is so necessary to have a strong foundation of stakeholders to support the children of our communities. It should not fall solely on the shoulders of our educators to recognize issues with student behaviors and act upon them. Rather, we as a community of advocates, mentors, and business leaders, have a responsibility to our kids to make sure that there is funding for the proper resources in any school district so that our kids don’t continue to fall through the cracks.

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/

Condom Sense

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The other day I attended the 3rd and final community meeting about a proposed condom availability program for our district’s high schools. The program would be offered to high school students who took a prevention class for half a year and met with the school nurse to discuss condom use. The meeting was well attended and the audience was made up of parents and students primarily.

The first speaker was from the county health department and he shared some staggering statistics about the rates of Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and teen pregnancies in our state. In Erie County, which includes the City of Buffalo, our rates of Chlamydia were 25% higher than the state as a whole. Below is a link with more NYS stats. You can easily look this information up for your state as well.

http://www.health.ny.gov/statistics/diseases/communicable/std/

Additional we were told that:

  • There are 200 unplanned teen pregnancies in our district each year.
  • 44% of teens in BPS have had sex.
  • Out of those 44%, 35% are not using condoms.
  • 33% or 1 out of 3 BPS students have had sex with at least one person during the past 3 months.
  • 16% have had sex with more than 4 people in their lifetime (meaning up to age 17).
  • 10% had had sex before the age of 13.

That data came directly from the YRBS or Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a link to which I’ve shared below. Here you can read the questionnaire that is given to our kids. Some parents interpret it as the most salacious X rated content they and their children have ever been exposed to. Go ahead. Take a look and see what you think, then I’ll let you in on a little secret. Your kid might not be engaging in any of these activities but chances are they know about them. I know my kid did.

http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/yrbs/pdf/questionnaire/crosswalk_1991-2015.pdf

That evening one parent got up and said something to the effect of, “How dare our district put money into this lurid survey. That money could be much better spent.” He also came up with a couple more doozies: “These teens want to get pregnant so they can be put into the system,” and “Your slide report isn’t accurate because Chlamydia and Gonorrhea can be cured.” I wish he could have shared that last comment with the young student I met that evening who told me that her friend thought she was pregnant because she stopped getting her period. Instead she had Chlamydia that had gone untreated and will probably result in infertility.

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Who, What, Where  

The evening really got going when a student who graduated in 2009 got up to help facilitate the discussion. He said that when he was in school he and his friends didn’t spend a whole lot of time talking about academics. They mostly talked about sex. Who was getting it, how much they were getting, and where they were getting it. The Metro bus, school bathrooms, locker rooms, and hallways were some of their favorite places. Did you ever hear of the “World Famous Mustang Ranch”? Well they don’t  raise Mustang’s exactly. It’s the premier brothel of Northern Nevada. As this former student continued to speak I was thinking that our schools were starting to sound a bit like it.

After the student led discussion we broke into groups: those who thought the proposed policy was fair, those who thought it wasn’t lenient enough, and those who thought condoms should not be offered at all. Surprisingly, no one in attendance including the parent who thought teen pregnancy was a way of milking the system, thought that it was a bad idea to offer condoms to teens. That left the other two options and we were pretty much equally divided between them.

My belief was that the policy was fair. Our group agreed that an educational component, some sort of Sex Ed curriculum was necessary to properly inform students and engage them in discussions about risk behaviors. The other group felt like the educational piece did not need to be attached, just make condoms readily available, because everyone’s doing it anyway and no one listens to the stuff coming out of a text book about sexual health. I thought that was a very interesting point. How are our kids receiving health and sex education or are they receiving it at all?

Keeping it Realimages-4

In the past I’ve talked about the importance of an adopted district wide health curriculum. Now I want to propose the adoption of health education that actually speaks to our students. What if there was peer to peer education regarding Sex Ed? What if the former student speaker and others like him went into our schools and talked to the kids from a point of view that they actually understood? What if several of the teen parents who were in the audience shared their stories in our classrooms? Even if we incorporated some of these discussions into a Sex Ed curriculum I believe we would have more engaged students who might start thinking differently about the realities of risky behaviors. And trust me, even if we as parents are doing a good job of discussing this subject matter with our kids at home, I guarantee they are way more comfortable talking about these things with their peers. Remember back to when you were a teen. Were you kicking back with your parents and teachers talking about sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, or were you saving those conversations for your friends? It’s not to ever say we should abandon these talks as parents or educators, let’s just think about how to make it resonate with our kids in this day and age, not in what some of us might consider the dinosaur ages.

The Wonderful World of Recess

recess

My daughter began attending a Buffalo Public School two years ago. She was in 5th grade and that very same year New York State mandated recess. My daughter came home the day it was announced and was barely able to speak because she was so excited. I cried. Literally. I had just completed a huge playground build at her previous school, and both of my children knew the importance I placed on play and physical activity. This was such an enormous win for districts in NYS.

The first day my daughter was in such deep anticipation of recess that she skipped orchestra practice to see what exciting things this new world would offer. I found out that she skipped and I gave her a somewhat stern lecture on why it wasn’t ok but inwardly I was chuckling and giving her high fives. I had done a good job of instilling in my daughter a strong belief about the necessity of play.

Cogs in a Machine        images-2

That day she came home despondent. Recess wasn’t all that after all. They had sat in a room while the teacher tried to figure out what to do with them. It was like leaving a hectic job behind and going on a vacation to a remote beach. You get there and have nothing but time and you can’t think of what to do next. The adaptation to a leisurely pace of doing nothing other than taking care of yourself and recharging seems uncomfortable and daunting and almost not worth the adjustment.

They only had twenty minutes but that was enough time to make them all uneasy. How do you fill it? What do you do when your only task is to move around a bit, recharge, and take a much-needed break? Honestly it was sad to me. In our district and I’m guessing in many of yours, we had moved so far away from recess that the sheer notion of it left us utterly confounded.

The grumbling from teachers ensued almost immediately. Where do we have it? Who is going to supervise it? What does recess even mean? What kinds of activities are we supposed to be doing? Then simply, there’s no time for it. I heard all of this and I thought to myself, we have a deep-seated problem on our hands. Kids and teachers were functioning as cogs in a machine with no understanding of how to recharge. Everyone needed to step back, think about the school day in a way they weren’t used to, think outside the box about what really contributes to success in the classroom, and make a change. A healthy change, to which brain breaks, recess, and physical activity were integrated into each and every day.

Balls and Jump Ropes, and Games, Oh My!  images-3

As a parent I tried to help. I drafted an outline as to how we could create loosely structured playtime for the students. I recommended they survey the kids and find out what their idea of recess was. From that information I came up with the idea of creating a simple recess box filled with hula-hoops, chess sets, chalk, jacks sets, balls, art supplies, and books. These were all items that the kids associated with down time, play, and relaxation. Some were interested in the classic mum ball and even more were interested in Just Dance. One day my daughter told me that a classmate was so enthused while participating in Just Dance that he split his pants wide open. This seemed a minor complication from the incorporation of recess.

The Proof is in the Pudding CPAP_60_minutes

A lot of studies have been done that prove the importance of physical activity and the direct correlation to positive outcomes in the classroom. There are also findings that show that if a child’s schedule is changed to where they participate in a Phys Ed class one period prior to a class in which they struggle, they will improve markedly in that difficult class. At a workshop I attended we were told of a school that struggled with math scores. They changed schedules around and found that the students made up a year’s worth of material because of this change. Perhaps it wasn’t the easiest change to make but I am sure the positive end result far outweighed the difficulty of implementation. I have also heard of teachers who allow for brain breaks, little bursts of activity that the class partakes in for 1-2 minutes before each class. My younger daughter’s teacher uses the web site, go noodle daily to help the kids “get the wiggles out” and stimulate their brains. Regardless of age these breaks are important and there are lots of different activities to do.

http://www.qualityhealth.com/childrens-health-and-parenting-articles/kids-exercise-school-performance

https://www.gonoodle.com

http://www.actionforhealthykids.org/what-we-do/programs/game-on/about-game-on/get-involved/640-brain-breaks-and-energizers

Where are We Nowimages-4

The other day I attended a board meeting where I was asked to speak about the importance of recess and physical activity in our schools. But our district was already a glowing example of what’s being done right with recess and physical education, right? Wrong. There is something called “state mandated” and then there is something called being “in compliance”. Unfortunately in our district the majority of administrators have chosen the path of noncompliance. In the link below you can see NYS requirements. It might not be a bad idea to look into your state’s requirements and see if your district is meeting them.

http://www.p12.nysed.gov/ciai/pe/peqa.html

Why would administrators choose this path if they know the importance of physical activity as it directly correlates to success in the classroom? Three reasons; 1: They simply are not convinced that there is a correlation regardless of the endless studies that date back far more than a decade; 2: They are too bogged down in politics as usual and are blaming poor performance on large class sizes and lack of parent and student engagement, and 3: Money. At last week’s board meeting we were told that the 3 million we would need to hire the proper amount of Phys Ed teachers to get us into compliance just isn’t there and we’re probably not going to get it.

I don’t know a lot about school budgets but I am a firm believer in a mentality of “there’s got to be a way.” I’ve been told by people at City Hall who didn’t know I was a parent that there is surplus each year in every department and they end up scratching their heads as they try to determine how to spend it. It’s time to find the money and build a foundation of wellness that embraces whole child, whole school, whole community.