“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

 

**Update to Planting the Seeds for Greener Schools

Justin“What is the input and output of the greenhouse?” “What role do you play in this food production chain?” These were some of the questions asked by Buffalo public and charter school  students last night as we gathered in Tapestry’s greenhouse for a discussion with Justin Royer,  the school’s Americorp volunteer.

Justin has a degree in sustainable agriculture and has been an incredible resource for the school. He and the students have acted as producers by planting seeds, harvesters by picking plants and vegetables when they are ripe,  distributors when they walk the foods to the cafeteria for the school chef to use in recipes, and consumers when they eat the fruits of their labor.  Although there are raised beds on the school grounds,  a lot of the growing happens in the  greenhouse which is considered a “cold frame”. This type of greenhouse, with clear panels that admit sunlight throughout the year,  is often used in cold weather climates to prolong the growing season.

InteriorGreenhouseLast night we discussed the challenges that the school has faced in the development of a greenhouse and teaching garden and there were many. Lack of resources to get all of the necessary equipment such as fans, lighting, trays and plants was an initial hurdle. The solution? Searching for grant money and developing relationships with community organizations that are involved in gardening and agriculture sustainability. In Buffalo we are lucky to have two such organizations: Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP), http://www.mass-ave.org, and Grass Roots Gardens of Buffalo, http://www.grassrootsgardens.org. These organizations have helped Buffalo public and charter schools with gardens, grant money and farm to school initiatives.

Additional challenges included weather, the unexpected warm temperatures of Buffalo’s 70 degree winter, difficulty finding helpers to take care of the plants during holidays the summer months, and difficulty fitting new curriculum surrounding food sustainability into already packed school days.

Interiorgreenhouse2Although there are hurdles in establishing a sustainable agricultural environment in a school community, the benefits are far greater. When students come together to understand the cycle, plant seeds, watch things grow, harvest and consume, they learn valuable lessons about working together for a common outcome that has an impact on them,  the community and the environment. When you add to this the incredible stewardship of a volunteer like Justin, you have that much more of a chance for success!

 

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.

Addressing Mental Health in our Schools

images-4A friend just brought this article to my attention. It is a really important read about new approaches to identifying and helping students with mental health issues by offering in school support. It also takes a look at influencing factors in students’ lives and what we as parents and educators can do to tackle these issues with a holistic approach to mental well-being.

http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/05/22/how-schools-can-help-nurture-students-mental-health/?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20150523

Rethinking Discipline in Our Schools

Unknown-2I came across this article today about zero-tollerance policies in schools and their negative impact on students. It’s an important read as it discusses alternative approaches to disciplinary action in the form of “trauma-informed methods” to improve behavior. This goes back to the idea that kids are coming to school with a lot of issues based on socioeconomic background, and these issues are directly affecting behavior in the classroom. Punishing and suspending isn’t working it’s only adding to the problem. Out-of-the-box alternatives are what we need to focus on.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/zero-tolerance-fails-schools-teaching-students-cope-trauma/

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.

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.