How to respond to student bullying in High School

No Bully talked with Melissa Ambrose, who is the counselor at Oceana High School in Pacifica with a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean. Melissa has been through the No Bully Solution Team training.

What is different about bullying in High School? Bullying here is more covert than in middle school – students become very adept at masking. A lot of student bullying happens on the Internet which we rarely get to hear about it. Their language is different too. They talk of a student “hating on me” or “causing drama”. Some of the bullying is really a student conflict – they will accuse another student by saying “my girlfriend is talking to you” or “don’t tell me to shut up”.

I guess you can use conflict resolution in some of these situations? I do a conflict resolution when two students are coming from a place of power. However conflict resolution only works if the students match each other in power. If one is deflated or in a shame place, I move more to Solution Team.

Do you have advice for how to run a Solution Team in High School? You can’t be afraid of teenagers. You have to be really transparent and willing to get into hard conversations with them. I might open the Solution Team by asking, “What’s going on? You all know what it feels like to be dissed. I don’t care whether you like so and so. But he needs to feel safe and comfortable at school.” I reference the research on bullying – for instance that we know a student cannot learn if they feel unsafe because under stress – their attentional system shuts down.

How do you engage student empathy? It helps that our high school uses the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum. All our students have studied the Holocaust and how racism has played out in the US. This helps us talk about social justice for all our students. I ask the students on the Solution Team who their closest people are. I remind them that they have a universe of obligation that I am asking them to expand. I remind them that I need them to be upstanders.

What can schools do if they don’t have this curriculum? High School students respond well to tangible information. I often talk to students about the science of compassion. The Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley puts out a lot of great materials and conferences about this. I let my students know that when they extend compassion and kindness to others, it also helps them. They get a hit of oxytocin. By being kind, by being an upstander, they are doing something good for their brain and for their body.

Some teachers say that they cannot contain the bully in Solution Team meetings. If the bullying student is being provocative in the Solution Team, I am not afraid to challenge them “If you are being this way with me in this private meeting, I am really concerned how you are out there in the school.”

What do you like about Solution Team? It recognizes that the victim of bullying is often a provocative target and is as much part of the problem as the bullies. By High School students have often been bullied for years and have developed some hardcore defenses. One of our students who was bullied mercilessly in Middle School will say “shut the f*** up” as soon as someone talks to her. This causes intense conflict and she often starts it.

Do you have hope? We don’t have a football team and cheerleaders and a pronounced social hierarchy. That makes it easier for us to create a community where all students feel accepted. We are definitely not perfect but over years of investment in bullying prevention and social justice, this school has become increasingly kind, generous and tolerant.

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