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National Bullying Prevention Month: Schools battle ‘culture of silence’

Pupils ride skateboards outside a middle school in Dearborn, Mich. Michigan was recently ranked as the worst state in the country for bullying. Dave Brenner, U-M SNRE/Flickr
Pupils ride skateboards outside a middle school in Dearborn, Mich. Michigan was recently ranked as the worst state in the country for bullying. Dave Brenner, U-M SNRE/Flickr

By J.R. Williams
jrw@familysignal.com
This state was recently named the worst in America for bullying. But its bullying prevention programs are among the best in the country.

Michigan was ranked this month as the worst in the nation for bullying, but more public school students there are reporting instances of bullying, suicide threats, drugs and assault thanks to a two-year-old violence-prevention program operating statewide.

The OK2SAY program, which encourages students to anonymously report tips through text message, an app or other means, resulted in hundreds of incident referrals in 2015, according to an annual report. The program even helped the authorities thwart a credible school shooting threat, the report says.

The successful program reflects a trend among school systems to combat bullying by making it easier to report incidents, and could serve as a model for other districts looking for ideas during National Bullying Prevention Month. The Signal first reported on OK2SAY last fall, when officials were seeing encouraging signs of the nascent program’s success. With engagement increasing, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is calling for the program to be extended past its scheduled sunset date of Oct. 1, 2017.

The top 10 states with a bullying problem, according to WalletHub:   1. Michigan 2. Louisiana 3. West Virginia 4. Montana 5. Arkansas 6. Texas 7. Idaho 8. Alabama 9. South Carolina 10. Alaska

“I think it’s significant,” Schuette said in a Sept. 15 interview with MLive.com. “The challenges that children face today are a lot different and varied and sometimes more intense. It’s the social media buzz. … Now it’s not just something you say in the schoolyard playing kickball. Now somebody can put something on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter and it goes viral all over the place. That’s the difference.”

Michigan, which WalletHub.com recently ranked as worst in the nation for bullying, has aggressively promoted the program as combating the “culture of silence” on school campuses. OK2SAY works to remove the barriers that would prevent a child from speaking up. Through the work of teachers, administrators and program staff working on awareness efforts and student engagement, OK2SAY continues to bear fruit.

In 2015, OK2SAY collected more than 500 bullying tips, by far the largest category of report. In one instance, according to the report, a “bystander” used OK2SAY to alert officials that someone was being bullied verbally and physically on a school bus. That prompted the school to aid the student and involve the parents of both the victim and the bully.

The tipster acted out of concern that the bullying “might lead the victim to self-harm or suicide,” the report says.

When a student posted a video “bragging about a plan to go on a killing spree at school,” someone reported it through OK2SAY. Law enforcement officers investigated and determined it was a credible threat from a student who had a plan and access to weapons, the annual report says. That student was expelled and charged with a crime.

The number of reported tips is increasing. In a four-month period in 2015, tips were up 122 percent. Bullying reports increased from 174 to 348, the report says.

OK2SAY was modeled after a similarly successful reporting program in Colorado called Safe2Tell that was founded after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. The state took over Safe2Tell after 10 years of nonprofit operation. Like its Michigan counterpart, Safe2Tell keeps the tipster’s identity anonymous and provides multiple channels to submit reports.

“Students know, long before adults do, what’s occurring in their schools and communities — including fighting and bullying, substance abuse, dangerous and concerning behaviors, threats, depressions, suicide and self-injury, either witnessed in person or observed online,” the Colorado Attorney General’s office said in a recent report.

The similarities between the two programs are telling. In Colorado, bullying also makes up the largest share of submitted tips. In 2014, Safe2Tell collected more than 3,000 bullying reports, followed by suicide interventions (2,157), drug or alcohol reports (1,925), and threats of violence (641).

“We’re trying to change this whole culture of don’t be a snitch, don’t be a narc to a culture of responsibility where we all have to take care of each other,” Schuette told MLive.com. “It’s a way to stop violence before it occurs.”

The top 10 states with a bullying problem, according to WalletHub:

  1. Michigan
  2. Louisiana
  3. West Virginia
  4. Montana
  5. Arkansas
  6. Texas
  7. Idaho
  8. Alabama
  9. South Carolina
  10. Alaska

J.R. Williams
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