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Unsung Heroes

Guidance counselors, sometimes underappreciated in difficult budgetary times, are feeling more respect in their quest to combat bullying.
guidance counselors
Guidance counselors are taking on more students as district budgets get tighter. Above, Guidance Counselor Rosyln Wagner, of Cooper City High School in Florida, talks with one of 800 students. She used to handle just one grade but now she handles several, juggling scheduling, college admissions and support for all of them.

The national appetite for combating bullying at the elementary and secondary level in many cases is outpacing the ability of school districts to hire the guidance counselors who head up such efforts, although increased awareness of and sophistication in handling bullying over the past decade are beginning to have a positive effect, counselors say.

The ratio of students per counselor nationwide fell steadily from the late 1980s to the late 2000s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (see graphic), so there are more counselors per child. But that’s probably leveled off since the 2009-2010 school year, the most recent for which statistics are available, given the end of spending to shore up state and local budgets under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, says Jill Cook, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA).

“I don’t think we’ve yet seen the impact of budget cuts in terms of how it plays out with school counselor numbers,” she says. “In another year or two when we see statistics for this past year, we will know the full picture.”

Districts with higher ratios of students-per-counselor tend to be more reactive, Cook says. In the 2009-2010 school year, districts in California and Arizona struggled with more than 800 students per counselor on average, while only Vermont, New Hampshire, Wyoming and the District of Columbia fell below ASCA’s recommended 250-to-1 ratio.

In the meantime, the National Education Association is “alarmed” that counselors are seen as expendable when budget cuts strike, says Vice President Lily Eskelsen. “People say, ‘Let’s lay off the nonessential adults in the building,’ as if we had some,” she says. “They look at social workers and counselors.”

During the past decade, school counselors have become much more active in educating students, faculty and staff about bullying and taking active steps to prevent it, Cook says. The primary shift toward active prevention has been about using data to analyze numbers of discipline referrals or even attendance rates to detect troubling patterns.

How counselors address bullying varies among schools and districts and it depends on the severity of the problem. “It could be an information session in a classroom setting talking about what bullying is, and what you do when you see it,” Cook says. “A child might come to a counselor and say, ‘I’m being bullied,’ and the counselor finds out more information and works with parents to deal with a particular situation.”

Dealing with such questions fits well with counselors’ roles, Cook adds, because they are expected to handle academic and career-related issues as well as social and emotional development.

The Value of Counselors

Psychologists and social workers are valuable assets in combating bullying, but guidance counselors tend to be the point people, Cook says. Social workers typically coordinate with parents or community agencies to access outside resources for students, while psychologists are often tasked with special education-related matters, so neither group has adequate time or energy to dedicate to bullied students. “School counselors are often that support,” Cook says. “We want to make sure all kids have that accessibility.”PAWS

Eskelsen says that schools are not addressing the issue, not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t know how. “You’re still going to need that individual counselor to intervene, to be that human face and voice that a tortured child knows they can trust in,” she explains.

Even when schools do address the issue, it takes time and patience, because victims are too humiliated to come forward, and bystanders and witnesses are too reluctant because they’re afraid of becoming the next target, says Christopher Griffin, assistant principal at Scarsdale High School in the Scarsdale (N.Y.) Public Schools. Griffin believes that school leaders must persist, however. “One of the worst things that a person in a school can do is ignore someone being bullied or harassed,” he says, “because then kids feel the next layer of frustration, which is abandonment: ‘You’re supposed to be here to help me and make me safe!’”

Being Proactive in Utah

Six years ago, Brent Burnham, a school counselor at Midway Elementary School in the Wasatch County (Utah) School District, which has a 540-to-1 student-to-counselor ratio, began developing a manual with a framework of recommendations to combat bullying based on research by the late Kenneth Merrell, a school psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Oregon.

Merrell’s meta-analysis of hundreds of studies on bullying prevention showed that by and large, bullying programs raise awareness, but few change behavior. Merrell recommended taking a comprehensive, schoolwide approach based on response-to-intervention and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) rather than simply reacting to individual situations as they come up.

Designed as a framework so that district and school leaders can adapt it to their particular needs, Burnham’s implementation manual starts with administrators becoming trained in how to combat bullying and then using data—such as student or staff surveys, or behavioral data that reveal the repeat offenders—to map out where problems exist.

Next, Burnham recommends training the entire staff, including custodians, librarians, lunch workers and bus drivers, since bullies tend to strike first and most often in unstructured settings like the bus, cafeteria or playground. His school does at least an hour long training session at the beginning of every school year. Then counselors can move on to training students in how to recognize bullying, how and when to report it, how to solve their conflicts, and what constitutes tattling versus reporting—that is, telling adults about problems that students could solve themselves versus telling the adults about situations that involve either physical danger or complete social dysfunction and breakdown among two or more students.

Burnham says that when he first implemented his framework, “I had a gazillion reports [about incidents at the school]. I thought, ‘I made this worse.’” But he realized that bullying now was no longer covert. In addition to understanding why bullies act out and why victims don’t stand up for themselves, the effort teases out the 85 percent of the school population comprised of bystanders. Burnham says that real progress can be made “if you can empower those bystanders to not just stand back and be silent observers.”

At first, administrators were concerned about the commitment of time and energy required to implement Burnham’s recommendations. They came around, however. “What it does for them in reducing referrals and office visits, what it saves them in time in dealing with behavioral issues, is amazing,” Burnham says. “We’re constantly using data [which also includes surveys of students, parents and staff] to show the difference we make. [District administrators] are very supportive, even though money is tight.”

New Law in New York

Katonah-Lewisboro, with a student-to-counselor ratio of 180 to 1, is prepared as the new state law, Dignity for All Students Act, took effect July 1. “It’s creating new obligations for districts on how to respond to bullying,” Griffin says of the law, which requires districts to report incidents to the state education department and develop an anti-bullying policy that addresses staff development and procedures for implementation. As the former guidance and counseling director at Katonah-Lewisboro, Griffin says he had been facilitating a bullying prevention team for the past three years. “We’ve talked to kids, surveyed them, and learned about the extent and nature of bullying in our schools, then prepared the policy,” he says.

The counseling department at John Jay High School provides in-class workshops to larger groups of students and on-the-ground mediation to those who are bullying or being bullied, particularly students with a history of either, Griffin says. “The first thing we do is put an end to the bullying [incident],” he says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s over. Bullying can get complicated sometimes. Often you have two kids targeting each other.”

Strategies for dealing with bullying differ by the situation—for example, Griffin says, handling verbal abuse on a school bus is not the same as dealing with the ostracism of a teenage girl. Someone who’s getting picked on might benefit from role-playing. “Maybe you want to get up and say, ‘Buzz off, dude. Get a life,’” says Griffin. “There’s nothing worse than—this happens a lot to adolescents—they just sit there and wait to be bullied, and they don’t have a plan. Sometimes we say, ‘Let’s put a plan in place.’” John Jay has spent the first year ramping up the policy and plans to track its success rate going forward and to tweak as necessary.guidance counselors

Challenge Day

Sheboygan South High School in Wisconsin’s Sheboygan Area School District, with about 300 students to each counselor, has tried to take a broader, more programmatic approach so that fewer individual situations crop up. Steve Schneider, a counselor, says that the school has brought in a three-day program called Challenge Day that provides sensitivity training for about 100 students in all four grades per day and will be brought in again for at least the next two school years. The program costs $12,000 per year.

The training consists of students being broken up into groups of four or five, each with an adult volunteer facilitator who encourages the individual students to share something previously unknown to the group about themselves. This “if you really knew me” discussion starts at the surface (“I like dill pickles”) but typically moves on throughout the course of the day to much deeper issues (“My mother died when I was 12”).

The challenge comes four months down the road when the school is trying to sustain the mutual supportiveness such discussions engender.

“It makes the ground fertile,” Schneider says. “When an issue arises, we can draw on that message that we know they’ve all heard. We’re not spending as much time trying to state the case or defend the [anti-bullying] position. That’s already done.” A counselor can teach constructive behavior to the student accused of bullying and then work with the victim to better understand the bully’s frame of mind.

Schneider’s department also has worked closely with administrators at Sheboygan South and elsewhere in the district to ensure they know what’s going on and see where their disciplinary role comes into play. “If it’s a student who’s been disciplined on a regular basis, are there going to be consequences? Sure,” Schneider says. “But then we look at what benefit there will be to changing their behavior. That’s been the counselors’ role.”

Surveys before and after Challenge Day showed an increased willingness by students to accept and work with peers who are different from them in some way. Schneider figures the proof in the pudding will come with longitudinal data on referrals and reported incidents, which the school and district don’t have yet because the program just completed its first year.

Peer Mediation

Campbell High School in the Cobb County (Ga.) School District, which has a 450-to-1 student-to-counselor ratio, has implemented a peer mediation program to resolve conflicts. This has proved to be a proactive way to address bullying and has resulted in greater knowledge among students and fewer discipline referrals, says Julie Hartline, counseling department chair and the ASCA’s 2009 School Counselor of the Year.

“We’re often the first point of contact for students or parents,” Hartline says. “We’re part of helping the victim cope with what’s happening and then brainstorming ways to solve it.” While counselors help the victims and attempt to reach out to the accused students—by listening to their sides of the story, talking with parents, providing outside referrals, and following up—administrators typically discipline those who need that sort of message, she says.

The peer mediation usually happens in less serious situations. “Once a student feels they’re not safe, we’ve gone beyond that point [where peers alone can help],” Hartline adds. The school finds it difficult to help in situations that occur beyond school property, Hartline says, mentioning a female student who had been attacked by a group of students more than once on her way home from school.

The mother had tried speaking with the mother of the ringleader, who was “worse than the student,” Hartline says, so the mother of the victim contacted police. That’s sometimes the only option, although Hartline made sure the principal was aware and talked with the alleged bullies about the consequences of similar behavior on school property.

Nickajack Elementary School, also part of the Cobb County School District, provides classroom sessions for students every other week on how to recognize and prevent bullying, says Nicole Pfleger, K2 counselor and the ASCA’s 2012 School Counselor of the Year. “[Students have] been trained to—anytime there’s an issue that an adult doesn’t need to know about—give them techniques to solve their own problems,” she says.

Nickajack has adopted a program called Rachel’s Challenge, named after Rachel Scott, the first student killed in the 1999 Columbine shootings. Among other activities, students write down “random acts of kindness” on strips of paper that are added to paper chains hung all over the school. Pfleger, whose school also has a 450-to-1 student-to-counselor ratio, mentions the federal government’s Stop Bullying Now site as a strong resource.

Feel-Good Gestures Don’t Work

Too often, districts that lack or don’t want to commit adequate resources might pass a resolution and then move on, Eskelsen says. For example, a school board may pass a resolution stating, “We are a bully-free zone,” then frame and hang the resolution in the front office hallway. Nothing is done to help students and teachers know what to do if bullying is reported or witnessed.

The NEA has “10 Steps to Stop and Prevent Bullying” on its Web site. With so many districts lacking the budget for intensive training sessions with outside consultants, this is an easy way to share information that students and educators alike can use. Do not minimize the situation as prankishness, encourage a victim to ignore a bully, and attempt to resolve the situation by having the bully and victim shake hands, the 10 steps states.

“People don’t know what to do,” Eskelsen concludes. “They haven’t been trained. They don’t know what’s helpful and what’s hurtful. If we don’t take it seriously enough to make sure we have the right staff to handle a situation that could put a child in serious danger, then all of the lovely resolutions hanging on a school wall will be a very sad joke.” DA

Ed Finkel is a contributing writer to District Administration.