October 10, 2012

Bullying in Adventist Schools?

The Center for Conflict Resolution at La Sierra University focused on the issue of bullying during their breakout sessions at the North American Division (NAD) Teachers’ Convention, August 5-8, in Nashville, Tennessee. 

Frequently making news headlines, bullying among children and youth leaves lifelong scars not only on the one being bullied but also on the person doing the bullying and the observers. Incidents of bullying are generally treated as single occurrences, but Richard Pershing, J.D., the center’s director, says that’s not the answer. “A total culture change is needed in order to effect lasting change,” he says.

2012 1528CalledTogether INBOXTo this end, in cooperation with the NAD Office of Education and Adventist Risk Management, the center is making available to all Seventh-day Adventist schools at no charge a survey instrument called Olweus Bullying Questionnaire in order to collect data on bullying and create a common-language framework for a discussion of bullying and violence prevention among educators. The center is also proposing to help a limited number of schools pilot the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP). 

At the convention Adventist Review features editor Sandra Blackmer talked with Pershing and two other program leaders—Bob Christensen, a representative of Hazelden Publishing, a nonprofit publishing company that produces the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program materials; and Debra Pershing, M.A., an Adventist educator and Olweus certified trainer—to explore the program fundamentals.

Define the term bullying.
RICHARD PERSHING: A person being bullied is someone who is exposed to repeated and aggressive behavior directed toward them and who has difficulty defending themselves. It’s an imbalance of power and a form of abuse.

Although this is a widespread issue throughout the U.S. and other countries, on Adventist campuses is bullying truly more than an uncommon occurrence?
DEBRA PERSHING: We believe that it is. The common perception is of kids shouting and hitting and fighting. But bullying often happens behind the scenes. You see this particularly with girls even in kindergarten and first grade, where two or more friends decide they don’t want to play with a certain girl and they leave that girl out of their activities. This is done again and again until that one girl is excluded completely. This also is bullying, and it crosses all cultural, economic, and gender boundaries and includes cyberbullying.

RP:  Statistics show that 70 percent of teachers believe that adults intervene almost all the time in incidents of bullying, but only 25 percent of students agreed. Also, 90 percent of teachers on playgrounds say they intervene all the time, although videotapes show intervention only 5 percent of the time. So the idea that supervising adults always intervene in incidents of bullying is actually a myth.

What are the effects of bullying?
RP: Those who do the bullying are four times more likely to end up involved in criminal activities later in life. Those who are the targets of bullying often struggle academically at school, they’re frequently tardy, and sometimes they don’t show up at school at all. Some students may want to transfer to a different school. Children who are bullied may be negatively affected even into adulthood. 

How does your program work?
RP: A one-week campaign or putting posters on a wall just isn’t doing enough to address the issue. OBPP requires everyone’s participation and involves not only the students but the teachers, the administrators, and the parents. 

Debra, do you agree?
DP: Absolutely. The program helps kids to develop empathy for each other, to understand how each person feels, and then the person who is being bullied sees that the situation is being taken seriously and that something is being done about it. Teachers sometimes just say, “Stop that,” and give a student a time-out. But there’s a lot more they can do to help. OBPP doesn’t just deal with a one-time incident but develops an entire, ongoing culture change. 

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Program Leaders: (From left) Bob Christenson of Hazeldon Publishing; Debra Pershing, an Adventist educator and Olweus certified trainer; and Richard Pershing, director of the Center for Conflict Resolution

Tell me about your cooperative efforts with the NAD Office of Education. 
RP: The goal is to make conflict resolution part of the culture of the Adventist Church. The General Conference Executive Committee voted a resolution on April 18, 2002, titled “A Seventh-day Adventist Call for Peace,”* and it’s our mission to help the church implement it—but first we need data. The NAD Office of Education has agreed that they would like to gather data and have an evidence-based program. They’ve looked at the Olweus background information and feel it’s one that fits the culture of the Adventist Church. So the center is proposing to make available the Olweus Bullying Questionnaire to all Adventist schools in the NAD at no charge to them in order to provide a data baseline for Adventist educators.  The center is also proposing to make available a free online training course for every NAD principal and head teacher. The goal is to create a common language and framework for bullying and violence prevention in our schools and provide continuity in bullying and violence prevention. The center is offering to help a limited number of schools pilot the program as well. 

We’re also partnering with Adventist Risk Management, and they’ve agreed that from a risk-management point of view, gathering data and showing that the church is being proactive in managing the risks of bullying behavior are important.

In what way is Hazelden Foundation involved?
BOB CHRISTENSEN: We are a world leader in publishing abuse-prevention, faith-based material, and publication copyright for all the OBPP materials is handled through us. Our long experience dealing with issues such as bullying confirms that OBPP is very effective. It’s a change in the environment that eventually becomes a part of what schools do. That’s what you want to strive to achieve so students know that bullying is not acceptable. The results are a reduction in the incidence of bullying, no new occurrences of bullying, and the creation of pure relationships. It’s also very important to work with the bystanders, because most of the time they don’t know what to do. They’re afraid that if they say something they will become the next person to be bullied. We want everyone to feel safe to intervene or to report bullying to an adult without being viewed negatively by their peers. But the first step for the Adventist school system is to get the survey done so we can actually provide them with reliable data. 

What evidence do you have that your program works?
BC: We have more than 35 years of research, which began in Norway and later involved 15 school control groups in South Carolina, Philadelphia, and just recently a large Virginia study that included 9,500 students and 95 school districts. We have comparative data on schools that have implemented OBPP and schools that haven’t. The study results have not only shown dramatic reductions in bullying when the program is implemented but also improvements in academics. Many published articles on this research are out there. It’s by far the most evidence-based, researched-based program there is. 

Who’s funding the program?
BC: Versacare, Inc., a nonprofit, lay Adventist foundation, through its Versafund grant program. 

What’s the most important thing you would like our readers to take away from this article?
RP: In America we speak the language of violence, and when we’re not being heard, that’s the language we use. OBPP is about supporting a communication process that says we’re going to respond to the needs of the person who does the bullying, the one who is bullied, and everybody else who’s in that bullying circle. We are all part of this, and we all have to be involved in teaching the language of peace. 

For more information about OBPP and the Center for Conflict Resolution, go to www.lasierra.edu/index.php?id=conflict. 

* http://adventist.org/beliefs/statements/main-stat52.html 

This article was published October 11, 2012.