Livia Thomas and I met in 2012 when she sent on a note of desperation about a bullying incident at her elementary school. Principal Judy Nye and Livia were terribly concerned that their well-managed and peaceful Grimmer Elementary School had ongoing bullying that had not been reported, while hosts of students were negatively impacted.
Grimmer’s situation is not uncommon. Students often are afraid or ashamed to tell adults about being bullied. Dr. Jonathan Cohen, Director of the National School Climate Center, says that in numerous cases, bullying is not reported while staff are oblivious that a calm exterior masks terrible incidents of bullying, teasing, and intolerance.
Bullying is everywhere, but taking concrete steps to prevent and respond make a big difference. That is just what Livia and Principal Judy did. That is why we selected Grimmer as the site of our first elementary film production and we were thrilled with the outcome.
—Becki Cohn-Vargas, Not In Our School Director
Tell us about your school community and your work.
Grimmer School is my home away from home. My work there began in 1989 and continues today. I am the intervention specialist for grades K-6. In addition, I work closely with our principal, Judy Nye, and our Program Improvement Coordinator, Victoria Quintana, as anti-bullying coordinator.
When did you become involved in anti-bullying work and why?
Two major incidents ignited my passion for anti-bullying work. The first was the tragic murder on Oct. 2, 2002 of Gwen Araujo, a transgender teen who lived in Newark, CA. Simultaneously, the drama students of Newark Memorial High School, under the direction of Barbara Williams, were rehearsing The Laramie Project, the story of Matthew Shephard’s murder. The high school began receiving anti-gay hate mail and threats. At that time, I was involved with PFLAG’s work to educate and help parents/families deal with their own kids who were “coming out” and LGBTQ issues in the community. When Gwen’s death occurred just a few blocks from my home, I knew that I must do more.
Along with PFLAG and community leaders from Newark and Fremont, we formed Not In Newark. For two years, a small group of us met regularly with city leaders, conducted training classes for Newark’s city employees, and worked closely with Barbara Williams at Newark Memorial High School to make the community safer for all kids. We persevered to first educate ourselves about the issues and needs transgender teens and their families face daily, and then to educate others. Our community efforts were chronicled in Not In Our Town’s film, Not in Our Town Northern California: When Hate Happens Here.
Those two years changed my life dramatically. I came to understand the deep connections between feeling safe at school, being able to “be yourself,” achieving academic success, and growing into a socially responsible adult. As a lesbian and an elementary school teacher, I knew that anti-bullying work must begin early in a child’s life, when hateful patterns can be unlearned more easily.
My dream was to eventually create an anti-bullying video with Not In Our School about elementary school students learning how to deal with bullying. Little did I know that the second major incident would be at my own school and would help make my dream become reality.
What work are you most proud of?
Three years ago at my school, one very brave 6th grade girl stepped up and told our principal about a male student who was holding many 5th and 6th graders “hostage” with threats, intimidation, physical violence, name-calling, racial slurs, comments about body size, ethnicity, and inappropriate sexual words and gestures. Once that brave girl told our principal, 23 other students stepped up and wrote heartwrenching essays of being bullied–many enduring these negative behaviors since kindergarten. I was devastated.
That weekend, I went home and cried. I felt that I had let down our students. Naively, I thought we had a safe school where students felt comfortable coming and talking to teachers about their problems. I was wrong. What we didn’t understand was the well of silence that surrounds bullying as well as the “power” that bullies have over others. Simply put, the others often think of themselves as the bully’s “friend.” They don’t want to betray him/her. We had a lot of work to do.
We reached out to Not In Our School for help. We began working with Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas to create a strong Upstander program at Grimmer. Principal Judy Nye and I made a pact that we would hold each other accountable and make sure that we stopped the bullying – no matter what it took.
Her support and understanding has been and continues to be essential. Students and teachers banded together as Upstanders. We made posters and created an assembly for all students. Dr. Cohn-Vargas conducted a parent/student/teacher education night. Students felt empowered. One very shy 6th grade girl, who had endured being bullied since Kindergarten, wrote a speech and asked everyone to help make school safe by being an Upstander. Other students made posters and educated younger kids and kids in the after-school program. The students ended the year with a slideshow entitled, “We Stop Hate.”
The following year, the 6th graders kicked off the school year with an assembly entitled “We Promise.” Huge cut-out figures of their bodies were posted all around the cafeteria walls as the students marched in with signs asking everyone to be Upstanders. They promised to take care of the school and be Upstanders. Upstander Pledges were written and signed by students and staff alike. This would not have been possible without the full support and dedication of critical instructional time to the project. My deepest appreciation goes to the 6th grade teachers, Teresa Silva and Veronica Aguilar, for their time and creative effort.
That same year, our school adopted a young 2nd grader in Springfield, MO who was being bullied. Every classroom rallied around Jake, sending messages and a Grimmer Bear Upstander package to him. We conducted a parent/student workshop about cyberbullying and how to keep kids safe when using social media. At the end of the year, we were fortunate to be able to make the film, “Leaving a Positive Footprint,” with Not In Our School. Sixth graders painted blue footprints throughout the hallways and wrote positive messages on each one. They created a huge papier-mâché heart to signify their strength in overcoming bullying and their courage in being Upstanders. With their 1st grade buddies, they made paper footprints with positive messages, and then posted them around the school. Our activities were showcased in the school yearbook with a focus message from each classroom about being Upstanders.
This year, the students wanted to form The Kindness Council composed of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders to combat bullying. Their goal is to Cultivate Kindness. Student ideas generate all of our actions. To date, we have posted Kindness signs all over campus calling on all to stand up and be Upstanders through kind acts, no matter how small. Students designed and created Cultivating Kindness Flower Kits for each classroom.
Ten Kindness Council members volunteered to participate in a student panel about bullying, that we presented at a staff meeting. The students shared personal stories about how bullying has affected them and what they want teachers to know about bullying. Our Friday Noon Newscast reporters end each broadcast with a kindness quote or story that is meaningful to them.
We are now working on a final project of the year. Students will create and design a video and a Tree of Kindness mural for the school walls. Two Irvington High School seniors are helping us. They are both passionate about anti-bullying and making schools safe for all students. One student, Kyra, surveyed our 6th graders about the affects of bullying on their education. She will be returning to help us with an outdoor art display of 6th grade rainbow hands reaching upward to take a stand to end bullying. Berenice Silva is choreographing and teaching a dance to members of the Kindness Council. The dance will be a symbol of standing up and dancing away bullying. Partner classroom activities will also be included in the video: Chains of Kindness, More Positive Footprints, and Birds holding messages about kindness for the mural. Each classroom has a focus message in the school yearbook about how they have demonstrated kindness.
What inspires you? What advice would you give to other school leaders who want to address bullying and intolerance in their town?
Doing the work of anti-bullying is doing the work of educators. It is as important as teaching the core subjects. It is a key to creating a school culture where all students, staff, and families feel welcome and safe. The truth is, I have learned much more than I could ever teach our students about kindness, standing up and speaking out, and the need to belong. The students themselves are my daily inspiration to continue on this difficult path of growing Upstanders in an elementary school.
I encourage all of you who teach to listen compassionately to your students and learn what’s really going on “behind the teacher’s back.” Their stories will surprise you and, ultimately, inspire you, as they do me.
Join anti-bullying leaders at the Not In Our Town National Leadership Gathering in Billings, MT from Friday, June 20 to Sunday, June 22. Learn more and register for the Not In Our Town National Leadership Gathering here.