THOUGHTS ON SCHOOL CLIMATE

10/26/2010

    Suddenly, the subject of school climate has grabbed the attention of Plainview and many others school districts.  In our town, a parent group has raised some troubling issues concerning bullying that have churned the publicís emotions, emotions already excited by the horrific incidents of criminal behavior against gays young people.  Our school district does what school districts tend to do.  It frantically begins to look for some programs that might satisfy the growing demand for action.   

    But hold on!  Lest anyone believe that there is an epidemic outbreak of bullying and intolerance in the Plainview schools, forty years of daily engagement with the district as a high school teacher and for the past five years a full-time teacher union president tell me that we need to think our way through all of the hype that has some people thinking that our schools are not nurturing places where children are safe and tolerance is central to everything we do to educate the children in our charge.  That is not to say that there arenít instances of bullying and intolerance in our schools.  There always have been.  There probably always will be.  Neither is it to say that we always do a perfect job of handling these incidents when they arise.  I think we could do much better.  

    One of the few advantages of getting older is the perspective that comes with age.  The schools I found in 1969 when I arrived in Plainview-Old Bethpage experienced far more incidents of bullying and intolerance than occur today.  While there were certainly gay and lesbian students in our schools, I canít recall a single one who was openly so.  It would have taken extraordinary courage in that the homophobia in our secondary schools was absolutely incandescent.  Anti-gay language was the norm rather than the exception.  Religious tolerance was in far shorter supply too.  It was not at all uncommon to break up fights between students screaming religious epithets at one another. Neither was it unusual for parent groups led by community religious leaders to come to Board of Education meetings to protest what they considered the favored treatment given to students of another religion.  Probably the insidious prejudice at the time was the favored treatment of boys in our schools.  After all it wasnít until 1972 that the Title IX legislation was passed which put the authority of federal law behind the desire of young girls to have all of the opportunities their brothers received.  Was there bullying?  You bet, even though the rules for student conduct were much firmer and clearer than they are today.  Even then, however, most students saw our schools as places that they enjoyed attending.  

     We need to be reminded of the progress that has been made.  Our student body today is much more diverse.  Kids of different races, ethnicities and religions go to school daily with very little friction between them.  Contrast that to the one black student in Kennedy High School in 1969 who was never comfortable in our schools Ė a girl who could never partake in the rights of passage of her peers.  How proud we should be that last yearís winners of the Berkowitz Scholarships awarded each year by the PCT were African American and an Iranian Ė both girls Ė both extraordinary young people.  At the interview where I met them, I asked Alyssa Reimer what it was like to grow up as an African American kid in a predominately white community.   Her answer was a wonderful surprise.  She said that as far as she was concerned she had a normal childhood here.  She felt a part of everything.  She felt accepted and appreciated.  When we are talking about school climate, we need to celebrate our accomplishments for creating an atmosphere where such things happen routinely.  Board of Education, teachers, administrators and parents made this possible.  It didnít just happen.  

    Thatís not to say that our work in this area should be considered finished.  The POB Families Concerned About Bullying have raised some troubling questions that deserve to be taken very seriously.  While there is probably less bullying and more tolerance in our schools today than in the past, thatís hardly any comfort to any students feeling threatened or disrespected today or to their families who want the security of knowing that their kids are safe and valued in our schools.  Thatís why the PCT has urged the District to form a taskforce or committee like the one proposed by these parents Ė a committee of parents ( both from the PTA and those who may be unaffiliated but concerned about the issue), teachers, building and central office administrators and Board members.  Letís honestly take stock of where we are in creating the best possible climate for our schools and develop a plan that we can all support that will move us forward.

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