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An open letter to the New York Times

By Tom Roderick and Laura McClure

The New York Times' June 27 story "Online Bullies Pull Schools Into the Fray" provides a window into a highly disturbing aspect of life in our schools. It should be a wake-up call for school leaders and education officials: We urgently need to take positive action to transform adults' and students' attitudes-and the entire climate in our schools.

The article reflects a common approach to bullying and cyber-bullying--an approach that is reactive and focuses on the particular students who bully or are bullied. There is little evidence that this approach is effective. And it leaves out perhaps the most important player in bullying: the bystander--the hundreds of students and adults who can either stand by and let bullying happen or make sure that it doesn't.

The most effective way to address bullying is to stop it before it starts by investing time and energy in a systemic, sustained, and school-wide effort to create a school community based on respect. The process can begin by setting up a school climate committee chaired by the principal and made up of school staff, students, and parents. The committee administers a survey of students to gauge the extent and shape of the bullying problem. This information becomes the basis for developing and implementing a comprehensive plan that includes school-wide sanctions against bullying, parent workshops, faculty training, and classroom instruction to develop students' skills in becoming effective allies for students being targeted.

It takes time and resources to build a caring and respectful school community, but the payoff is well worth the effort: a climate free of fear where students can do their best learning. The message comes through loud and clear: everyone deserves respect. There is no more important lesson for our children to learn.

This is not pie in the sky. More and more schools are recognizing the importance of addressing students' social and emotional needs, and there are evidence-based approaches for doing so. Walk into certain New York City public schools, including schools in neighborhoods full of poverty and desperation--and you will immediately experience the atmosphere of caring and respect. This didn't happen by accident.

Tom Roderick is executive director of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility; Laura McClure is communications coordinator.