Bullying Prevention: School Support Staff Are Essential

Where do you think most student bullying takes place?  While some bullying occurs in the classroom, the most common places are on the school bus, in the hallways, in the stairwells, in the lunchroom, and on the playground.

What do these locations have in common?  They are where large numbers of students are located at the same time.  They are where students far outnumber adults.  And, importantly, they are locations where education support professionals (ESPs) are given some responsibility for controlling.

If we are serious about eliminating bullying from our schools so students can learn in fear-free environments, we need to focus on where the bullying occurs. And we need to ensure that all staff members, including ESPs, have the skills they need to address bullying when they see it.

We have conducted workshops at numerous ESP conferences across the country.  Participants are so thankful to learn concrete strategies that they can take to stop bullying when they see it.  Yet, they continue to share their concern that ESPs are too often left out of training at the school and district levels.  Why is that?  Do we think they don’t have a role to play in bullying prevention?

Consider for a moment the critical role of the bus driver who encounters bullying long before students step through the school door, or the nurse who tends to the physical signs of bullying: pinches, bites and pencil jabs, or the custodian who finds a student hiding in the basement afraid to go to class, or the cafeteria worker who sees students’ lunches being stolen from them, or the counselor who witnesses the tears and psychological trauma of bullying, or the playground monitor who comforts students who have been cruelly isolated from group games, or the security officer who daily witnesses every form of bullying and sexual harassment imaginable.  We have heard from these dedicated professionals– they’re concerned, frustrated, and want to do more.

Earlier this year, in March 2011, NEA released results of a member survey about student bullying.  We learned that 92% of the 2900 ESPs who completed the survey believe it is “their job” to intervene in a student bullying incident when they see it.  That’s wonderful news.  It’s a great indication of commitment to bullying prevention.

ESPs share another characteristic: most live in the neighborhood surrounding the school where they work.  They know the families; they know the students.  In turn, the students are likely to feel closer to them than other school staff, many of whom are not from the neighborhood.  If students are going to go to any adult to report being bullied, they will most likely go to those staff they are most comfortable with, who share the same culture  and language.  That is a reality that should receive greater recognition.

But ESPs report that their support isn’t tapped or nurtured.  Most staff development continues to occur at the end of the school day, when it is impossible for bus drivers to attend since they are busy taking the students home and when part-time food services staff have cleaned the kitchen and left for the day.   Even paraprofessionals who spend most of the day with students are often not invited to participate in staff development on bullying prevention.

What can we do to change this?  How can we alter the times of staff development to be more inclusive of all staff?   How can we recognize ESPs as the valuable resource in bullying prevention that they are?

Recently, the NEA created a resource for bus drivers about bullying prevention.  It is our intention to develop additional resources for other categories of ESP.  Please watch for them at the NEA Bully Free: It Starts with Me website.

Joann Sebastian Morris is a Senior Policy Analyst and lead staff on NEA’s Bully Free: It Starts with Me Campaign.

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