Durham County

DPS wants students to take a stand against bullying. Here’s why.

Asher Skeen
Asher Skeen Submitted

Durham Public Schools students are being asked to pledge to stand up against bullying when classes start Monday.

The #Day1 pledge, as it’s called, is a partnership between Durham’s Bull City Schools United (BCSU) and the national Tyler Clementi Foundation.

BCSU is also partnering with the DPS Office of Equity Affairs in an effort to ensure students begin the new school year on a positive note by helping them to feel safe and supported.

Matt Hickson, BCSU founder and DPS administrator, said signing the pledge is not a mandate and that some principals will simply read the pledge out loud on the first day of school.

“Not all will be asked to sign it. The goal is to ensure all students are exposed to the pledge,” Hickson said.

Student can also go to https://tylerclementi.org/day1-pledge-mid-high/ to sign the pledge and to submit it online.

By taking the pledge, students promised to “work to make others feel safe and included by showing respect and compassion,” and to “not use demeaning language, slurs, gestures or jokes about anyone’s sexuality, size, gender, race, ethnicity, any kind of disability, religion, lack of religion, or income.”

In DPS’ most recent Student Climate Survey, self-reported incidents of bullying and harassment were relatively low in 2016 and 2017.

Around 23 percent of slightly more than 6,000 respondents report that people have said something bad about their race or culture on school property in the past two years.

Meanwhile, 15 percent of respondents report having been bullied on school property and another 11 percent to 12 percent report being bullies off of school property during the last two surveys.

Anti-bullying measures

Other area schools have also taken stands against bullying.

Last November, Orange County Schools issued a statement saying bullying would not be tolerated and urged students to report incidents to the appropriate principal.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools also has strong policies against bullying.

In Durham, Superintendent Bert L’Homme and the school board endorsed the #Day1 pledge at a recent school board work session.

The board went a step further by adopting the pledge and reading it aloud.

“I think this can be a great tool for counselors and principals to use on day one when school starts to say this is our community and this is what we stand for and these are things that we are going to call out when we see it and prevent it from happening in the future,” said DPS Board of Education member Bettina Umstead.

L’Homme said research has shown that school districts that have taken a firm stand against bullying on the first day of school have significantly reduced the number of such incidents.

“The schools that did this had a steep decrease in the number of incidents in their schools when every student signed the pledge,” L’Homme said.

A personal story

Asher Skeen, a transgender male who graduated from Riverside High School in June, is careful to not overstate the incidents of bullying he witnessed as a student.

Skeen witnessed occasional bullying, mostly toward LGBT and immigrant students at Riverside, but didn’t find it to be a major problem at the school.

He said he felt more pushback from students while in middle school where he was seen as a “masculine girl” and teased about looking like a “lesbian.”

He said his middle school peers simply found it difficult to grasp the concept of a transgender male.

“In high school, I had more trouble with my interactions with faculty members, but I didn’t particularly have trouble with students,” Skeen said.

Skeen, who was a member of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance, explained that there were teachers at Riverside unwilling to accept the fact that the school had LGBTQ students enrolled.

He said it showed in their interactions with LGBT students and when it came time to discipline them for infractions.

Skeen, who will work part-time with BCSU this fall, said even though he saw minimal bullying among students at Riverside, he believes the #Day1 pledge is a good first step for DPS and toward possibly eliminating bullying altogether.

“Creating a stronger anti-bullying culture is going to leave a message in kids’ minds that bullying is not OK, and it lets kids who have been bullied know they have a support system in place to help them,” Skeen said.

Teachers back initiative

A couple of DPS teachers who helped to bring the initiative to the school board said in a statement that helping students feel safe in school improves academic outcomes.

“I know that when my students feel safe and they know that teachers affirm their various identities, they perform better in school,” said DPS middle school teacher Cheyenne Solorio.

Meanwhile, Jacqui Batts, a high school English teacher, said the district’s LGBT students and students of color should see their identities celebrated, not disparaged.

“Our school district making this pledge to protect all students will go a long way to make sure we create positive school climates for everyone,” Batts said.

School board Vice Chairman Steve Unruhe, a retired DPS teacher, said the pledge stands in stark contrast to how such incidents were handled when he was a young teacher three decades ago.

“It’s light years ahead of what schools looked like when I began my career 30 years ago where we just turned the other way and there was so much abuse and hurt that took place in our schools,” Unruhe said.

Hickson applauded DPS for endorsing the #Day1 pledge and for its recent resolution condemning hatred in the wake of the violent and deadly counterprotest against white supremacists in Charlottesville.

“To my knowledge, the (DPS) school system is among the first in the South to take action on both of these initiatives,” Hickson said. “From condemning white supremacy to committing to stand up for LGBT students, this board sent a powerful message that our school communities can come together and lead the way toward justice for our state and nation.”

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645

The #Day1 pledge

▪ When I witness bullying at school, home, work, online, or in my place of worship, I will choose to be an #Upstander. I will intervene or report the abuse, and I will reach out to the bullied person to offer support.

▪ I will work to make others feel safe and included by showing respect and compassion. I will not use demeaning language, slurs, gestures or jokes about anyone’s sexuality, size, gender, race, ethnicity, any kind of disability, religion, lack of religion, income, politics or other differences… even if they behave that way to me.

▪ I will tell someone who is in a position of authority what I saw and heard and make sure there is follow-up.

▪ If I learn that someone is feeling very isolated or depressed I will reach out and tell this person that their life has value, no matter how they feel at the moment and no matter what others say or think.