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USF Researchers Among Presenters at Pasco County Anti-bullying Event

Topics included the use of storytelling in combatting bullying, cyberbullying and creating positive relationships in schools.

USF Associate Professor of Communication Keith Berry, Phd, leads Together We Stand participants through a presentation on the use of storytelling in raising awareness of, and ultimately preventing, bullying.

More than 500 principals, administrators, teachers and students representing all 85 Pasco County public schools gathered Monday for Together We Stand Pasco Youth & Community Summit, where three USF researchers shared their work on preventing bullying and creating safer, more inclusive learning environments.

“Our focus is on preventing all kinds of violence in schools, and promoting resiliency, or the capacity to recover from difficulties, in our students,” said Pasco County Superintendent of Schools Kurt Browning, in opening the event at Charles S. Rushe Middle School in Land O’ Lakes.

“Today, you’re going to learn strategies for creating a positive school culture, a culture of caring and respect.”

After a keynote address by Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper, who implored attendees to infuse one another with the “joy of acceptance and power of love,” a busy slate of breakout sessions on a wide variety of topics began.

Storytelling as a Means to Combat Bullying

Among the presenters: USF Associate Professor of Communication Keith Berry, PhD, who studies the use of personal stories in raising awareness of, and ultimately preventing, bullying.

“Bullying is a form of aggression and violence that is invisible, that is it works best when it falls outside the oversight of adults. Stories shine a light on it, allowing us to learn about it and know that we are not alone in going through it,” said Dr. Berry.

In 2016, Dr. Berry published Bullied: Tales of Torment, Identity and Youth, in which he analyzes students’ stories of having been bullied as children and shares his own experiences with bullying. Dr. Berry is particularly concerned with how bullying affects the development of identities among especially vulnerable children, such as LGBTQ populations.

During his 90-minute presentation, Dr. Berry shared excerpts of his book and encouraged the more than four-dozen attendees to share the stories of bullying in their own schools.

Attendees discussed the various forms of bullying they observe, from physical to relational; in the latter, children aren’t harmed with a punch to the face, but with emotional blows dealt through gossip, exclusion and verbal putdowns. In a digital society, bullying frequently carries over from the school yard to the social media, where school-based personnel have little ability to intervene, attendees acknowledged.

Teachers and administrators also brainstormed how they might establish trusting relationships with their students earlier in the year, even amid the myriad tasks that demand their time and attention, potentially resulting in enhanced communication and reduced incidences of bullying.

A young student added to the conversation, pointing out that it’s not only victims who need help, but also the bullies, who may be lashing out because of their own feelings of insecurity.

“Bullying is a complex problem that merits complex answers,” said Dr. Berry.

“But one of the ways we can start to solve it is by thinking more carefully about communication and stories.”

Dr. Berry walked his attendees through an exercise in which they wrote on strips of paper the names of their least favorite vegetable and insect, as well as the word they use when they call out to a parent, spouse or friend.

Then he instructed participants to step on the pieces of paper. Participants hesitated before stepping on their nickname for a loved one.

“Words are personal, relational, cultural and political. This is just a slip of paper, but this is a first start in teaching people that words are filled with meaning and understanding,” Dr. Berry said.

Kim Bachmann, a special needs teacher at Cotee River Elementary School in New Port Richey, said she feels both students and school employees could benefit from more open dialogue and the sharing of stories about bullying.

“Stories give humanity to bullying. Kids and adults are all dealing with their own stuff, and it’s easy to put our anger on other people because we don’t have a personal connection with them,” she said.

“Through the sharing of our stories, we become familiar to each other, and we realize that we share a lot of the same feelings.”

Bachmann added that through communication and story sharing, she would expect to better understand both the victims of bullying as well as the bullies themselves. In doing so, she said, educators may be able to help bullies “erase and re-record” their identities.

Clarifying “Cyberbullying”

Also presenting during Together We Stand was Nathan Fisk, PhD, an assistant professor of cybersecurity education and a member of the first cohort of Fulbright Cybersecurity scholars, who studies the role of technology in the lives of today’s children.

For today’s kids, Dr. Fisk said, their online and analog lives are one and the same. Adults are quick to refer to “cyberbullying,” that is bullying that happens on the Internet, but for children, there is no such thing. Bullying that happens online is simply a continuation of bullying happening face-to-face.

To understand and effectively address bullying, it is imperative that adults engage with children to learn about their experiences, Dr. Fisk said.

Evette Striblen, a senior instructional specialist for secondary reading, said after Dr. Fisk’s session she realized the importance of creating safe environments for students to share about bullying, regardless of the medium through which it is delivered. By giving children a voice, she said, they can help lead positive change.

Striblen’s colleague, Rachel Hatten, a senior instructional specialist for secondary English language arts, added that by bifurcating face-to-face and cyberbullying, educators, parents and others may actually be impeding progress.

Building Relationships for Conflict Resolution

Rounding out the USF-provided presentations at Together We Stand was Lauren Evanovich, PhD, a research assistant professor in the College of Behavioral & Community Science’s Department of Child & Family Studies, who provides technical assistance to Pasco County and other Florida School Districts through the Florida Positive Behavior Interventions & Support Project funded by the Florida Department of Education, Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services (BEESS).

She led educators through an exercise on effective classroom circles, when students and their teacher gather in a circle to talk about school-wide expectations, class experiences, or even review curriculum. When educators take steps to create connections between circle participants, for instance by having everyone share how they’re feeling or their favorite color, and are careful to make sure everyone is included and heard, classroom circles can go a long way in building relationships. Those relationships, she said, form the basis for more effective conflict resolution in the classroom and overall school culture.

Now in its fifth year, Together We Stand takes place annually to provide Pasco County’s public school employees and students with ideas and information on how to reduce bullying, build resilience among the student body, and foster safe, welcoming, supportive, respectful and inclusive learning environments.

Story and photo by Rachel Pleasant, University Communications & Marketing

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