When first lady Melania Trump announced her “Be Best” program earlier this month, aimed at discouraging bullying and encouraging social and emotional well-being among schoolchildren, a few naysayers belittled it. But most of us involved in the public schools welcomed this important attention from the White House on a very serious and growing issue among students.
The violence in our schools must stop. On May 16, a former student of Dixon High School in Dixon, Illinois — the alma mater of President Ronald Reagan — opened fire near the school gym where students had gathered for a graduation rehearsal.
His mother said the boy was bullied and recently had been beaten so badly, his jaw was broken while others watched. No one offered to help him. The recent bullying left her son troubled and could have been a catalyst for the shooting. Not that that’s any excuse for such a heinous act — but it is critical to note.
On May 18, eight students and two teachers were killed and 10 more were injured by a 17-year-old gunman at Santa Fe High School in Texas. It appears the shooter targeted and killed a 16-year-old girl who publicly rejected his advances.
Her parents said later she had told them he was harassing her.
As with all horrific school shootings across this country, there are many recommendations to prevent this from happening again. After each incident, there is a call to action among local, state and federal officials.
However earnest and urgent these calls are, there are still very few programs designed to prevent violence in our schools. Such programs begin by raising the awareness of emotional health among everyone and fostering a positive school culture.
Student shooters share common characteristics. They appear to have experienced pain and hopelessness in their young lives to the degree that they want to cause the destruction of others within the institution that was the source of their pain. Schools are the locus of many students’ anger, fear, jealousies, and sense of self.
For many adolescents, school is the setting at which their sense of identity and self-worth is either forged or fractured. Essentially, our students need programs that teach them early on the true meaning of friendship and the attribute of empathy — and provide intervention, especially in later grades, to help victims as well as perpetrators.
A positive school culture is necessary for the emotional health and safety of all its students.
As the president of the Best Friends Foundation, I have seen up close the problem of the deterioration of social and emotional behavior, which is the root of bullying and violence among students, and have sought to address it. Recent research from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) states that “20.8 percent of students report being bullied at school.”
Another form of bullying that’s even more pervasive and possibly deadly is relationship violence. Many high school students, both male and female, report being physically or sexually abused by a dating partner, and research tells us that students who are bullies in adolescence are more likely to be abusive to their partners later.
An American College Health Association (ACHA) study from 2016 says that “many victims of sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence were first victimized at a young age.” It seems that the #MeToo movement should acknowledge this noted origin of violence that occurs later.
Also, we have reliable information from students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that the shooter was bullied mercilessly throughout his middle and high school years. Later in high school, in apparent retaliation, he physically attacked the boyfriend of a girl who had dated him and later rejected him — and posted a picture of his handgun as a threat to the teen.
Youth are known to internalize the detrimental effects of bullying, which may turn a victim into a bully or at worst, a sociopath.
A study recently published in the Journal of Educational Psychology indicated that children bullied continually at school have “declining test scores, a growing dislike of school, and failing confidence in their abilities,” which can lead to anti-social behavior. The Best Friends Program, which originated in 1987 at Georgetown University Child Development Center in Washington, D.C., has served over 30,000 students nationwide, including 20,000 in public schools in D.C. Nearly 10 years ago, we developed and successfully delivered a series of in-school seminars that use dance, music, and curriculum materials to provide information about where and how to get help.
In our musical number “It’s Not Cool to Be Mean,” students are actively involved in presenting statistics and hotline numbers on stage during a school assembly to peers. They are encouraged to take a stand against bullying, are taught that what they send in a text lasts forever, and that they have a responsibility to intervene when their friends are in extreme anger or despondency.
In our Best Friends and Best Men Program, we teach that peers are in a much better position to intervene, as “cyber friends” have access to online posts and pictures that are simply unavailable to adults. Our research showed us that nearly all of the participants would encourage their fellow students to use the hotline cards provided. School counselors tell us that respect for authority has also decreased — and they believe it has led to a deterioration of the code of conduct that previously existed in our nation’s schools.
In one post-seminar survey, 31 percent of the students reported that their school culture was negative. Evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that “school-based programs can reduce aggressive behavior, including bullying … associated with youth violence.”
The harassment and destructive treatment of youth toward other youth is an issue that transcends all politics. Everyone agrees that school violence and shootings must stop.
At the Best Friends Foundation, we wholeheartedly support Melania Trump and her “Be Best” initiative. We salute the first lady for what she is doing and invite her and anyone else who is interested to learn about our programs for elementary, middle and high school students.
It would not only be a shame, it would be hurtful to students everywhere if partisanship thwarts the first lady’s admirable effort to encourage students to reject bullying and to choose their best behavior. In the past, initiatives by other first ladies were embraced and encouraged on both sides of the aisle. We truly hope this will happen with our current attentive and perceptive first lady.
The harassment and destructive treatment of youth toward other youth is an issue that transcends all politics. Everyone agrees that school violence and shootings must stop. To do that, bullying and violence prevention programs should be in place at all levels in all schools.
Elayne Bennett is president and founder of Best Friends Foundation, based in Washington, D.C. She is the author of the Best Friends program model and curriculum materials for elementary, middle and high school students, and has taught the foundation’s drug, violence and abuse prevention curriculum — focused on character education — in 27 public schools in D.C.