How Administrators Are Tackling Bullying at Mahwah High School
Patch sits down with MHS Principal John Pascale to talk the implementation of the state's HIB law and proactive steps he says the school is taking to combat and prevent bullying
There are movies, outreach groups, public service announcements and even a statewide law addressing bullying. A buzz word of the 21st Century, kids, their parents, and their educators have become more aware of bullying. Parents discuss it with their kids, teachers with their students, and kids talk about bullying amongst one another.
In 2011, NJ Governor Chris Christie was praised for signing the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights,” aimed at cracking down on bullying in Garden State schools. The Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying Law, or HIB, as it has come to be known, is now being implemented in Mahwah schools as a matter of course.
“I think it’d be foolish to think that there are never going to be conflicts among teenagers,” Mahwah High School Principal John Pascale said of the state of bullying at his school. But, when asked if he felt bullying is a pervasive problem at MHS, he said “I don’t find it to be that way. The number of kids who never have any issue is tremendously greater than the number who do.”
However, bullying incidents do occur at the high school, he admits. Last year, the district reported that it investigated 13 incidents at Mahwah High, and four of them were confirmed as cases of HIB.
Under the state HIB law, schools must stick to a strict timetable when reporting and investigating potential acts of bullying, and providing consequences to bullies.
“Even if an incident is found not to be HIB, that doesn’t mean something bad didn’t happen,” Pascale said. “It means that whatever happened was probably a violation of our code of conduct, and inappropriate behavior always gets a follow up, administrative meeting, and a consequence.”
Pascale said the school does a fair amount of conflict resolution before clashes between students escalate into ongoing harassment.
“Generally, every student in the building has at least one adult he or she feels comfortable going to and talking to about issues that come up,” Pascale said. “It is extremely important to us to cultivate that student-teacher relationship.”
The school spends a good deal of time dealing with bullying incidents – by law, MHS has appointed an anti-bullying point-person in the school who leads investigations into potential bullying incidents, and the Mahwah Board of Education has cited that each investigation takes staff members an average of seven hours. Twice a year, Pascale said the school’s anti-bullying team meets to analyze the data collected during HIB investigations, determine if there are any patterns occurring, and address any recurring issues that come up.
But Mahwah’s main focus when it comes to bullying, Pascale said, is prevention.
The principal said the school has numerous policies and activities in place that teach students how to coexist peacefully, respect one another and treat each other appropriately, and rattled off an extensive list of the programs in place when Patch sat down to interview him about HIB earlier this month:
- The school uses “Restorative Practices” to encourage kids to resolve conflicts they have with teachers or other students by speaking to one another in a way that builds the relationship. “It teaches kids how their actions affect others,” Pascale said.
- Teachers and administrators are a visible presence in the schools’ hallways, especially during the passing times in between classes, Pascale said. “It’s rare that HIB happens in the classroom. Inevitably, it happens during unstructured time.”
- Mahwah clubs and activities are focused on community service, he said. “When you’re service-minded, it builds character…and creates empathy for others,” Pascale said. Clubs in the high school like Interact revolve around service, and students are given credit for engaging in community service.
- The school has also started to incorporate technology etiquette lessons into its curriculum. “Technology is going so quickly, we need to teach our kids how to use it appropriately, what privacy is, what the boundaries are, that they are responsible for what they write, and that once they write it, they can’t take it back.” MHS business classes incorporate blogging into their lessons, and last year required students to develop technology-based anti-bullying lessons for younger students in the district.
- Each day, the school broadcasts “Project Wisdom” messages, which are meant to build character and a positive school community, officials say.
- Each year, clubs like HOPE (Helping Out Peers Everyday) and GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) organize anti-bullying awareness activities, like students writing messages in the school library’s windows, or creating activities during lunch that students engage in. This year, HOPE asked teachers to nominate kids caught doing nice things, and organized a bulletin board recognizing the positive behavior. During spirit week each year, classes come together to decorate the cafeteria wall with a respect-centered message.
- All freshmen students take part in a freshmen-advisory program, where the new students meet with volunteer upperclassmen to help ease the transition to high school, and create relationship between older and younger students in the building.
- Every student takes the “Sticks and Stones” program in health class, which has kids look at “relevant” issues, like internet bullying, harassment, peer pressure, conflict, hate speech and suicide,” Pascale said.
- Every spring, students have an anti-bullying schoolwide assembly. Last year, “Spark a Change,” a group from Bergen Community College, challenged students to be the change that stops bullying.
- Core classes are infused with character and community-building lessons, Pascale said, by utilizing tools like cooperative learning and respectful peer critique.
- This year, Pascale said two clubs have started “very exciting,” new anti-bullying initiatives. The Community Problem Solving Club is running “Open Your Hearts,” which seeks to highlight the diversity in the school, reach out to different groups and commend leaders. And, the Future Educators Club has joined the statewide “Stand Up to Bullying” initiative.
“It’s very pervasive,” Pascale said of the number of different ways the faculty and staff work to encourage a respectful school community. “We try to get the message to kids in different ways. We hope that by the time they leave us, we’ve instilled good character, citizenship, and responsibility.”
Pascale, who has been at Mahwah High School since 1990, said he feels he has a good working relationship with parents and students in the school community. constantly changing and updating the school’s response to bullying is essential.
“I think that any school, any good school, operates like a business in that way,” he said. “Look at McDonald’s, you can get a happy meal with apple slices instead of fries. They had to change because people are more health-conscious now. Schools have to change, too; look at how we respond to incidents, things like that. So, I am constantly reading, attending conferences, learning about changes in technology, and going to workshops.”
The method has not clicked with all students and parents. One MHS parent recently blogged about her frustrations with bullying at the school.
But overall, Pascale said that although the “inevitable” acts of bullying take place in Mahwah High School, he feels confident that teachers, staff members, students and parents are working together to create a positive school environment.
“I have an awesome student body,” he said. “And it’s a good school.”