MARSHALL - Nancy Riestenberg, school climate specialist with the Minnesota Department of Education, spoke about bullying prevention and restorative practices in school environments Monday night at Southwest Minnesota State University.
Riestenberg's presentation, "Bullying Research and Intervention: Connecting the Dots of Behavior and Experiences," includes multiple opportunities for audience members to engage in conversation with each other.
"It's important to move around," Riestenberg said. "And it's good for people to get to say their name. Too often children don't get to say their own name. So it centers them and give them self-esteem."
Photo by Jenny Kirk
Nancy Riestenberg, Minnesota Department of Education school climate specialist, shared her knowledge in a presentation on bullying and intervention Monday night at Southwest Minnesota State University.
Riestenberg pointed out that getting to know someone breaks down assumptions based on physical characteristics and builds empathy.
"The more we know about people, the less likely we are to hurt them," she said.
A video Riestenberg showed called "Stripping the Label" sent a strong message that sexuality does not define who a person is. When teens clad in white T-shirts began ripping off negative labels, such as "queer or dyke" to reveal other words, such as "dancer, honor student or athlete," it seemed to have an impact on audience members. So did the fact that, according to the 2011 National Education Association National Study of Bullying, 88 percent of bullying is done when other peers are present.
While bullying is often thought of as physical in nature, the study revealed that while 39 percent of cases are indeed physical, 50 percent of the bullying incidents are relational, where a person uses his or her relationship to another to manipulate in a negative, hurtful way.
Harm, Riestenberg said, is also in the eye of the beholder. While people often shrug off, minimize or excuse negative actions, bullying does hurt.
"Ignoring anyone's negative behavior is harmful," she said.
According to the 2010 Minnesota Student Survey, asked of nearly 130,000 students, just over half reported to being a bully or to being bullied.
"Our participation rate is around 90 percent of school districts," Riestenberg said. "It's a pretty good cross-section."
Bullying can lead to physical and mental health problems, thus complicating the issue.
"Bullying is most harmful because of the repetition," Riestenberg said. "After awhile, it can make people believe there is something wrong with them."
Evidence, Riestenberg said, reveals that 90 percent of suicides are related to mental health issues.
"For some youth, bullying challenges a student's sense of well-being," she said. "For some, it can lead to mental health challenges, though there's no research that supports there is a link between bullying and suicide."
Prevention is complicated, Riestenberg said. But by using restorative practices, which between 30-35 percent of Minnesota schools use, harm can be repaired and the environment improved. The concept, which some refer to as a circle group, requires accountability, cooperation, communication and consistency.
"Bullying isn't just limited to the bully and the victim," Riestenberg said. "Restorative practices include everyone who was affected or harmed."
Riestenberg noted a situation involving her second-grade son in the past. Her son was in a classroom full of students and heard some sixth-grade girls fighting out in the hallway. Not only were the girls involved, but also affected were two teachers who stepped in to stop the fighting, the classroom full of second-graders who freaked out, the girls' parents and the principal who received countless phone calls from parents. While the girls were suspended for a few days because of school policy, the consequence didn't fix the harm. Many involved came together to discuss how to make it better. The girls agreed that they needed to apologize to the second-graders.
"That's an example of restorative justice," Riestenberg said. "No one was left out. What happens in a restorative process is talk, talk, talk. Everybody gets a voice. Part of what you're hoping to give back to the bullied child is their voice."
It works best when families and schools are on the same page. It doesn't work well if parents or schools don't hold kids accountable, as one audience member shared. The woman spoke of a situation that she knew of concerning two football stars who bullied a teammate, a transfer student from another school. The older players forced the new teammate to put his mouthguard in his mouth after they had urinated on it.
While the bullies were originally suspended and kicked off the team, within three weeks, they were allowed back on the team and were able to make up all their school work. Other audience members inquired and found out that parents of the suspended players were influential in the community.