by Paris S. Strom and Robert D. Strom

[From: Uniting adolescent support systems for safe learning environments, by P. Strom & R. Strom. The Educational Forum, 67, Winter 2003, 164-173.]


Transforming schools into safe havens is a national aspiration. The Safe Schools Act (1993) has served as a basis for supporting police presence on campuses, metal detectors to discover weapons, peer mediation of student disputes, and violence-prevention programs. These initiatives have helped to increase order in classrooms, hallways, restrooms, cafeterias, and school parking lots (Howard, Flora, and Griffin 1999; Hyman and Snook 2000). A different approach is to unite adolescent support systems: faculty members, parents, and students. Schools can decrease peer abuse and increase civil behavior by harnessing the powerful influence that schools and families can have on creating a safe learning environment.

Prevalence and Effects of Peer Abuse

Schools are supposed to offer students the support they need to advance their emotional, social, and mental growth. Without this support, many students are forced learn about survival. Nansel, Overpeck, Pilla, Ruan, Simons-Morton, and Scheidt (2001) surveyed 16,000 students from grades 6 to 10 at public and private schools to assess the scope of bullying behavior. The researchers determined that 30 percent of respondents had moderate or frequent experience with peer abuse. A projection of these figures indicates that as many as 18 million students in the United States may be involved with bullying. About 60 percent of cases referred to assistant principals in high schools relate to the mistreatment of classmates (National Center for Education Statistics 2001).

Physical and psychological bullying can involve punching, threats, name-calling, spreading rumors, extortion, theft, sexual harassment, and spiteful teasing (Bosworth, Espelage, and Simon 1999). Students who suffer such mistreatment have described feelings of fear, humiliation, hopelessness, depression, pain, inability to concentrate on studies, and reluctance to come to school. In rare cases, adolescent victims carry out violent revenge against the tormentors or faculty members whom they believe failed to help them when needed (Vossekuil, Reddy, Fein, Borum, and Modzeleski 2000).

Even students who avoid being targeted by bullies can be harmed by the social lessons learned from them. Bullies who do not get negative feedback regarding their misconduct provide a dysfunctional model suggesting there are no consequences for acts of aggression. Evidence about the effects of peer modeling comes from studies in which classmates were present during 80 percent of the bullying episodes at school (Craig and Pepler 1997). In most instances, readiness to act as spectators who acquiesce to abuse seemed to reinforce patterns of intimidation. Student unwillingness to report peer abuse is a perilous norm. Following incidents of violence, it has often been discovered that certain students had prior awareness regarding threats but did not take them seriously or decided not to tell faculty members (Fishbaugh, Schroth, and Berkeley 2002).

From an early age, children are discouraged by their parents and surrogates from –tattling” about everyday indignities suffered at the hands of hair-pulling siblings or playmates who tease them or take their possessions. Often, they are urged to be strong and resolve these disputes themselves without inviting adults to intervene. When they start school, however, students must learn the distinction between tattling and telling. The purpose of tattling is to get someone in trouble, while –telling on someone” is a way to get the help that person needs.

Parental Participation in Discipline

When teachers identify the changes they believe are needed to ensure more appropriate behavior in class, the factor they mention most frequently is parental involvement. Teachers maintain that only parents possess the authority to fulfill their unique role in helping shape the social and emotional development of children (Langdon and Vesper 2000). Accordingly, faculties continually attempt to motivate parents to remain engaged in educating daughters and sons. The success of students depends on both teachers and parents making a distinctive and vital contribution. When students struggle with academic subjects such as mathematics or biology, parents may not have the necessary knowledge to offer tutoring. Therefore, schools must assume this responsibility. However, when student deficiency relates to social misconduct, parental guidance is essential. Parents are responsible for teaching the basic lessons that students need to adopt civil behavior and a healthy work ethic. More parents must recognize that, despite their busy schedules, they must guide their children and cannot transfer that obligation to surrogates at school (Wolfe, 2001).

The disengagement of parents is also worrisome to policy makers who believe that, until more families enforce rules of good behavior at home, reforms initiated at school cannot fully succeed (Thorkildsen and Stein 1999). In a survey of 1,600 parents of school-age children, Farkas, Johnson, and Duffett (2002) asked parents to rate the relative importance of teaching 11 separate character traits and values to their child. The values ranking highest, as –absolutely essential” to teach, included being honest and truthful (91 percent), being courteous and polite (84 percent), having self-control and self-discipline (83 percent), and always doing their best at school (82 percent). One way to evaluate parent success, in their own estimate, is to compare the percentage who identify a lesson as being absolutely essential and subtract it from the percentage who report they have succeeded in teaching this attribute to their child. This type of analysis found that, even in the realms of performance parents consider vital, significant gaps exist between their intentions and what they have been able to accomplish. The most common problem for parents seems to be teaching self-control and self-discipline to their children. Of 11 traits, this one presented the largest gap; 83 percent of parents maintained it was an essential lesson, but only 34 percent noted that they had succeeded in impressing this trait on their children.

Some related observations come from high school teachers responding to two questions: What changes would you like to see in the way students treat teachers? What changes would you like to see in the ways parents treat their childrenęs teachers? Educators reported that a growing number of students lack self-control, as exhibited by their unhealthy reactions in dealing with day-to-day challenges. Some signs of dysfunction are periodic outbursts of anger, swearing, threatening peers or teachers, and withdrawal from engagement in regular class activities. Such problems are compounded by similar types of responses from parents when informed about their childrenęs unacceptable conduct (Baumeister and Tice 1994).

According to teachers with lengthy classroom experience (Burstyn, Bender, Casella, Gordon, Guerra, Luschen, Stevens, and Williams 2001), students become emotionally upset and make threats much more often now than in the past. The most troubling reaction is parent denial, a refusal even to consider negative feedback about their childrenęs misconduct. Such parents usually take their childrenęs side instead of accepting responsibility to confront the youngsters and try to correct misbehavior. This sort of response by parents leads misbehaving students to suppose that relatives condone their misconduct.

Parents spend less time than they believe they should with children, which may be eroding their authority. Parents still want the moments together with their children to be mutually satisfying. Therefore, instead of administering punishment when it is appropriate, they tend to suspend discipline or rescind their punishment soon after it has been announced. Perhaps they suppose this response will endear them to a child, but it fails to establish necessary civil behavior (Azzerad and Chance 2001).

Classroom discipline and lack of administrative support are usually cited as main reasons for teachers leaving the field, along with inadequate salary (Certo and Fox 2002). Professionals are leaving teaching much earlier in their careers than are those in other fields. Nearly 30 percent of teachers quit within five years of entry; even higher rates of attrition are reported among disadvantaged schools. Experienced teachers agree that student misconduct has been rising in the past few years. The problem is further complicated by fears that carrying out discipline could cause student threats, anxieties about personal safety, and worries related to possible legal action (Fishbaugh et al. 2002). In contrast, parents can impose restrictions that get childrenęs attention in ways teachers cannot. In combination, these concerns suggest that more parents must understand that the faculty function is to teach knowledge and skills required in the workplace. The corresponding role of parents is to ensure that students come to school ready to learn and prepared to treat others in a civil manner.

Obstacles to Teacher-Parent Communication

Benson (1997) surveyed 250,000 students, finding that, between grades 6 and 12, a decline in parent-child dialogue is common. Contact between teachers and parents declines as well. From middle school onward, students no longer have one teacher. Instead, they have four to six teachers who provide instruction each day. In this complex setting, faculty members should share their observations about the notable behaviors of students with colleagues and parents. Yet this interaction occurs infrequently, late, or unsystematically, if at all.

When parents lack understanding about misbehavior at school, they cannot cooperate in resolving issues in proactive ways. Poor communication also means that studentsę good conduct tends to be ignored or reinforced sporadically. In these circumstances, dysfunctional behavior across classes can go undetected, and strategies to help individuals with problems are generally uncoordinated. Communication with families is usually so focused on misbehavior that parents do not expect reports about commendable conduct.

Communication is further eroded by ineffective methods that schools sometimes rely on to contact parents. Most parents are employed, so they cannot be reached at home during the day. Some do not have electronic mail, answering machines, or voice mail. Others are unable to talk on the phone at their place of work or check e-mail promptly. When parents cannot speak privately on the telephone at their job, it is unlawful for teachers to leave messages about student behavior with a co-worker. A related problem is that misbehaving students come home before their parents, so they can intercept messages from school. Circumstances that deny parents information they need support a false presumption that good grades are synonymous with good conduct.

Teachers also face limitations. They have classes most of the day, making repeated efforts to reach parents impractical. Using electronic mail during class can be difficult, and occasional down time of computers prevents teachers from accessing the system. Phone tag is tiring and time-consuming. When the other party is finally contacted, conflict might ensue. Teachers are reluctant to speak with parents who react to bad news by getting upset and confrontational (Hyman and Snook 2000). Given these obstacles, the wise approach may be to send and receive some information without dialogue or confrontation.

Erosion of communication with parents generally produces unfavorable results. When parents get information late, they cannot offer a timely, well-reasoned response. On the other hand, lack of information leaves them unable to respond to misconduct or exemplary behavior of an adolescent. Poor communication from the school can motivate parents to withdraw from their corrective guidance role and expect teachers to take over for them. Teachers may try to address the misbehavior but, lacking support, eventually give up. No one benefits when teachers and parents look the other way in response to student misconduct. Without the synchronized efforts of adults, emotional and social needs of adolescents remain unmet (Burstyn et al, 2001; McCarthy 2000).

Application of New Communication Systems

To build more effective school communication systems, we began with a field test conducted in cooperation with Motorola. We chose a high school with 1,800 students from low- and middle-income households. We asked faculty members to volunteer for the project; they would learn how to use personal digital assistants (PDAs) to record notable behaviors of students and report to parents by pager messaging. The boys and girls to be observed reflected the full range of student conduct rather than being limited to individuals identified as troublemakers.

Fourteen faculty members, selected from the pool of volunteers, represented varied subjects and amounts of classroom experience. An assistant principal and counselor were included on the faculty team. We chose Palm Pilots (m100, 2MB memory) as the PDAs because of the low cost ($150 per unit), ease of use, immediate access, and ability to interface with school computers. Most importantly, their portability allowed teachers to record events in class without having to walk back and forth from their computer sites. Such convenience made for less conspicuous, regular record keeping that could be done anywhere at school.

Recording and Reporting Behavior

To facilitate quick and systematic encoding of class events into the PDA, we developed a School Code of Recordable Events (SCORE). Associated with this numeric code were statements appearing on both sides of a wallet-size card to ease notation of specific classroom events. When teachers observed any of the criteria listed on the SCORE card, they promptly entered a corresponding number on the hand-held wireless organizer. Later, a teacher could electronically transfer information within seconds to his or her personal computer.

SCORE features more than 50 statements that identify types of misconduct, good behaviors, and teacher responses to incidents. Criteria statements appear in green, red, and blue colors to differentiate categories of behavior. Green statements identify commendable student conduct calling for reinforcement in school and at home. Some examples are –comes to class on time,” –asked questions,” –prepared for class,” –showed self-control,” and –shared library/Internet sources with peers.” Statements in red describe low- to mid-level types of unacceptable conduct that require corrective guidance. Examples include –bothers others,” –uses put-downs,” –inappropriate language,” –tardy,” and –unprepared for class.” Blue statements present faculty responses, student achievement levels, and parent/teacher requests for information. Teacher responses to misconduct include –talked to,” –detention,” and –referral,” while levels of student achievement could be –class grade is D” or –recent work well done.” Parent/teacher information requests include –class work sent home for parent signed inspection” and –please confirm message.”

We also devised the Parent Alert Signal System (PASS) for reporting studentsę behavior to parents. PASS was designed to inform parents about the nature of a test they must face in guiding their son or daughter to adopt acceptable behavior or commend them for exemplary conduct. To recognize behavior, the teacher entered a code number onto the PDA that corresponded to that behavior listed on the SCORE card. Then, this numeric coded message was sent to the parentęs pager via telephone in the teacher's classroom.

Once beeped, the parent checked his or her pager display to view the message. The parent checked the SCORE card to learn the issue to discuss with the student, whether positive or negative. Next, the parent contacted the pager of the teacher to confirm the message had been received. Pager messages to parents were sent by 5 oęclock on the same day as notable events took place. This practice encouraged parent-adolescent interaction about the issue that evening.

Teachers present certain lessons according to a planned schedule, but parents usually have to teach teenagers as the need arises. They can, however, know when certain –life lessons” are needed if teachers report notable events in a timely manner. The requirement of immediacy for giving parents feedback about student behavior is an important condition of effective positive/negative reinforcement and punishment. Educators want to reach parents quickly when a student fails to demonstrate acceptable conduct or meet academic standards. Faculty members should also make known their observations of good behavior so that reinforcement can be offered at home (Sheldon and King 2001).

In recruiting subjects for the field test, we sent all parents of students in one class of participating faculty a letter describing the project and identifying the teacher who would send pager messages. Parents were told that, if selected, they would be issued a free Motorola pager and allowed to keep it after the project along with six monthsę free airtime. Random selection was applied to a pool of parent volunteers to meet funding limits for purchasing equipment. Those who already owned pagers were allowed to join the project because their involvement did not add to expenses. Parents of 108 students participated, at a cost of $50 per family. This price included a pager and one year of airtime service available through a group rate.

Numeric pagers were chosen as the PASS device because of their portability, ease of use, immediate reinforcement via repeated beeping/vibrating on receiving messages, and for being least expensive compared with other telecommunications. Though expensive options, SCORE also could be used with cell phones, text messaging, and PDAs with wireless Internet. Simple messages sent by pager are sufficient for much school-home contact and respect the privacy of information being shared. If used properly with SCORE, numeric pagers can meet the need of adolescents for timely instruction and reinforcement from parents.

At the conclusion of the field test, we mailed parents a survey with a stamped self-addressed envelope. To ensure student privacy and minimize peer influence, students were sent individually to the school library, where they anonymously completed their surveys. Response rates were high for teachers (100 percent), parents (70 percent), and students (94 percent). Favorable reactions revealed that the PASS/SCORE systems have considerable potential. More than 90 percent of parents reported that the pagers were easy to operate, messages were readily interpreted by referring to the SCORE card, and timely information helped them to recognize when adolescents needed their instruction, advice, or discipline.

More than 90 percent of faculty members concluded that PDAs facilitate accurate record keeping and that sending messages by pager is a more efficient way to reach parents than telephone. Parents (97 percent), teachers (93 percent), and students (82 percent) agreed that pager messaging could improve the relationship between families and schools. Teachers (92 percent), parents (92 percent), and students (82 percent) suggested that the behavior of most students would improve if good conduct received timely recognition. Most parents (98 percent) and students (83 percent) felt encouraged by messages recognizing good conduct. The groups recommended further development of the SCORE/PASS system so that teachers could compare their own observations of students with those of their colleagues and decide how to respond in a unified way.


Reporting Good Behavior

Recording studentsę good behaviors and reporting to their parents should become common practice. Indeed, most parents acknowledged the need to be aware of their childrenęs good behavior as well as poor conduct. Many mothers and fathers felt that attaining their family goals of character development depends on reinforcing favorable actions when they occur. One mother stated the consensus view: –Before my involvement in the project, I supposed that •no news is good news.ę Now I realize that no news is just not knowing. It is a great boost to sometimes receive feedback that our son is becoming mature.” Reporting on favorable behavior to encourage and maintain good conduct accords with findings that nurturing healthy relationships in school is a more effective way to reduce discipline problems than instituting zero-tolerance policies with highly punitive penalties (Nettles, Mucherah, and Jones 2000). Furthermore, attachment to the school can be a protective factor against violence (Franke 2000). Students who feel accepted by peers and vested in the institution are less likely to participate in risky behavior (Resnick, Bearman, Blum, Bauman, Harris, Jones, Tabor, Beuhring, Sieving, Shew, Ireland, Bearinger, and Udry 1997).

Current Research and Development

For the second stage of this project, we are being guided by the following assumptions:

(1) Uniform coding of behavior increases accuracy of documentation and reporting.

(2) Comparison of observations by several teachers increases reliability of reports.

(3) Training faculty members to use PDAs and pagers can improve school communication.

(4) Information sharing facilitates faculty awareness and collaboration.

(5) Collective detection can identify early patterns of student dysfunctional behavior.

(6) United discipline interventions can be monitored systematically for their effect.

(7) Recognition of commendable behavior can help support character development.

(8) Quick notification about misconduct allows parents to assume their guidance role.

(9) Faculty reports about good behavior should be reinforced at home and at school.

(10) Parents can perform more effectively with access to a suitable agenda for dialogue.

(11) Students can learn to take individual responsibility for the prevention of abuse.

Sites of operation have been increased to include several schools in which most students come from low-income and minority households. Six components are concurrently undergoing development and implementation.

The first component focuses on establishing a model for training middle school and high school teachers to use SCORE and PASS communication. Competency testing will determine efficacy of teacher training to record behaviors of students and send pager messages to their parents. Some tasks for testing involve accuracy rates for data entry of student numbers, parent pager numbers, and SCORE numbers onto PDAs. Additional tasks include electronic data transfer from PDAs to personal computers, beaming of information between PDAs, and knowing how to share observations with colleagues using other data formats. Faculty members will identify the benefits and shortcomings of their training program.

A second component centers on the discovery of ways for increasing faculty collaboration. Teachers should work together more often to resolve the problems of students they have in common. Unified responses to pervasive discipline cases can provide greater consistency than when teachers independently pursue strategies that may contradict ones used by colleagues. Unified efforts are also less confusing to parents. Collective efforts can be monitored to assess student progress and identify corrective measures that appear most effective with individuals and classes.

The third component requires formation of a data bank enabling continuous examination of individual, group, and school-wide behavior patterns. All schools should be expected to report their progress in helping students learn the social skills required in a team-oriented society and their relative success using remediation efforts to overcome social deficits. Educators must move away from advice about discipline given by media-portrayed experts whose recommendations lack empirical evidence. These sources should be replaced by reliance on school site data banks. A data bank is essential for tracking misconduct, good behavior, and institutional responses and evaluating the outcomes of disciplinary practices. When this information is accessible, faculty members can respond as a unified team rather than react as isolated professionals.

Another important function of a school site data bank is to determine how SCORE/PASS impacts student safety and learning. Most of the problems associated with unsafe school conditions restrict instruction and learning. For optimal learning and achievement, students must be able to concentrate on lessons, avoid disruption by peers, have uninterrupted time to carry out academic assignments, receive encouragement from teachers and peers, feel a sense of attachment to the school, and believe that informing faculty members about safety concerns will result in protection. Teachers and students must report perceived changes in amount of disruption in class, ability to concentrate, peer motivation to learn, feelings of social belonging, unhealthy confrontations, bullying, harassment, and impressions of personal safety.

The fourth component calls for refinement of PASS. Parents will receive pager messaging from teachers over an extended period of time. Parents will rate the ease of operating pagers, interpreting teacher messages by referral to SCORE, confirming awareness of a need for family dialogue, and coordinating responses of faculty members and family. Students who complete surveys privately in the school library will evaluate perceptions of how pager messaging from school affects parent-adolescent dialogue.

A fifth component includes homework tasks that consist of recommended agenda questions to guide parent-adolescent conversations. The goal for having these conversations about issues such as goal-setting, meaning of success, response to failure, career exploration, and coping with stress is to facilitate the dialogue necessary for reciprocal learning. Listening to one another and engaging in respectful self-disclosure can result in better-informed parents more able to provide relevant advice and instruction. This approach differs from other parent education programs in the assumption that what parents need most is knowledge of how their adolescents perceive and feel about events in their lives.

The sixth component implicates the student support system. Even though peer abuse is a common obstacle to safe schools, students are seldom expected to contribute to the solution. The conditions that can motivate bystanders to intervene on behalf of mistreated classmates must be identified (Naylor and Cowie 1999). To increase the frequency and effectiveness of peer intervention, students must become aware of their responsibility as individuals to take action when anyone is being mistreated. In addition, they should be taught effective strategies to stop peer abuse and act with courage so that they do not jeopardize their future as compassionate individuals. When students see bullying behavior as a group phenomenon, they recognize the participant role of peer observers and can be trained as facilitators of social change. Specifically, they can report incidents to the faculty. Aside from the victims (who suffer humiliation, anxiety, and pain), bullies (who harm others and endanger their own social and emotional growth) and witnesses (who are in the process of forming lifelong responses to injustice) require attention (Salmivalli 1999). Therefore, we have formulated an anti-bully curriculum that fosters constructive norms through cooperative learning. In addition, students are acquiring peer- and self-evaluation skills they will need in a team-oriented, interdependent environment at their workplace, home, and community (Strom and Strom, 2002a; 2002b; 2002c; 2003).


Responding to Bullies

From the faculty point of view, SCORE and PASS methods raise to prominence social and emotional issues known to interfere with academic achievement. Such issues are not presently addressed in periodic report cards, though they have much to do with personal success throughout life. Parents should be informed quickly about student misbehavior, because such conduct places student progress in jeopardy and disrupts the opportunity for classmates to learn. SCORE and PASS acknowledge the vital role of family cooperation in addressing misconduct. Information sharing among teachers, counselors, and administrators about studentsę social conduct has been meager. When faculty members can easily access data to learn how their own students are observed by colleagues in other classes, patterns of dysfunction can be detected early, and teachers can respond in a unified way that includes monitoring interventions for effect.

When students reach middle school, the desire to be seen as independent and capable of managing their own affairs often conflicts with a need to seek help for peer abuse. Some adolescents believe that for them to continue asking teachers and parents to intervene on their behalf is childish. On the contrary, educators and relatives should assure students that their expression of fear does not detract from self-reliance, identify them as cowards, or cause their supporters to be ashamed of them. In fact, when they become adults, they will be expected to follow rules and realize that reporting abuse is the right thing to do so that it can be eliminated. As adults, they will realize that friendship means giving support to peers in their lawful behavior but not standing idly by when peers break the rules or intimidate others. In fiction, Harry Potter possesses magical powers that he uses to silence bullies. In real life, however, students do not have such magic at their disposal. Caring adults and concerned peers are all they can count on to protect them. By uniting support systems of adolescents, the schools they attend can become safer and more appealing places.


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Copyright 2003 © by Paris S. Strom and Robert D. Strom

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