WAUKESHA — How schools respond to bullying has changed over the decades. Before social media and cellphones, kids dealt with it throughout the week with the weekend providing a reprieve. Now there is more emphasis being placed on how to prevent and treat the problem and respect privacy to keep the learning process continuing.
Marc Lehnerer, director of student services for the School District of Waukesha, addresses attendance and discipline at a higher level.
"I help our wide variety of school staff understand policies and procedures regarding discipline. I also work with our social workers, school counselors and school psychologists who do a lot of what we call tier-one interventions around behaviors. That’s all the preventative work that we do," Lehnerer said.
Especially in lower grades, there is teaching going on with how people interact and treat each other.
Parents expressed concern on May 9 regarding repeated incidents of alleged bullying and violent behavior in a kindergarten class at Ben Franklin Elementary in Menomonee Falls.
Parents at the meeting demanded more transparency and better communication coming from administration. The school district provided a list of immediate actions for better communication.
Lehnerer said that for kids at that age it is not unusual to need instruction on sharing and respecting each other’s feelings and space.
“We talk about ‘hands safe,’ keeping your hands safe and body safe so you are not potentially injuring yourself or someone else. It gets down to the granular level with how to interact with others,” he said.
In Menomonee Falls, parents said their children’s kindergarten class was moved to a different location while a staff member dealt with the other child.
Lehnerer said SDW teachers are well-trained to address those types of situations.
There are instances where a class might be moved to another room when a student is being unsafe.
“There are a couple different reasons for it. One can be safetyrelated while the other one could be to help respect that student’s privacy,” he said.
In a high school setting, a student might be called to the office to speak with an administrator. The majority of the time the student will comply with it.
“You hear in the NFL all the time, praise in public, discuss discipline in private. That is easy to do with an older student but sometimes with younger students they are dysregulated, and they can’t understand the benefit to them of dealing with the situation in private,” Lehnerer said.
Sometimes that means the other classmates are moved to another room so the issue can be resolved in a private setting.
“Let’s say there are 22 kids, it is easier sometimes to take the 21 students out of the class and move them next door than the one kid who is dysregulated and to the point where they are disrupting the whole class,” he said.
The SDW has staff, such as teachers and administrators, at the various buildings to do that type of work as needed.
“At just about all our sites our staff has walkie talkies so that they can contact each other as needed and get help that is needed,” Lehnerer said.
Amanda Desua, school counselor, works in five SDW elementary schools. She primarily focuses on universal class lessons using the American School Counselor Association mindsets and behaviors as a guide. Desua visits each classroom every month to do lessons connected to bullying prevention, empathy and emotion regulation.
Desua is a published children’s author and has a doctorate in education.
“I feel blessed that I’m an educator in a time and decade when we understand the ramifications and long-term impacts. We see how important it is to catch it (bullying) before it gets out of hand,” she said.
She added there is always room for improvement and it is good to take advantage of teachable moments. Desua and other staff help students recognize what bullying is. “We also empower students to be instead of bystanders be ‘upstanders.’ We coach them how to stand up for others in an assertive way. Being assertive is a lifelong skills you need to have in communication not just in the school building but in the work world,” she said.
Desua added they also teach students how to be assertive themselves.
What is bullying?
The SDW has a board policy on bullying that complaints are investigated which could include interviewing other students, teachers and staff who were there when the allegations occurred. They would determine whether the complaint meets the criteria to be considered bullying.
“Bullying is a term that gets used a lot. There is a difference between a single negative interaction between two students and what we truly and legally consider to be bullying under our policy,” Lehnerer said.
The district policy states that in order to be considered bullying it would be a deliberate or intentional use of words or actions. It is not just an outburst, which does happen.
“Kids say things in the heat of the moment and they can be hurtful to other kids but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is bullying. Another criteria for bullying is the intention to cause fear and intimidation or harm. That is truly bullying,” he said.
Another question is if there is an imbalance of power such as multiple students against one kid. Another example is another grade level or even height. Finally, was the behavior repeated?
“Parents or community members may use the term bullying because of one incident. One incident is not normally a bullying situation because it is not repeated,” he said.
Based on the criteria the administration would make the decision if it qualifies as bullying and take appropriate action based on the student’s developmental level. At the elementary level, Lehnerer said, it is a teaching opportunity.
There might be discipline as well but more often it is a way to teach students how their actions impacted others, what they can do to make it right and how to prevent the behavior from happening again. If it was an ongoing issue or to a point where it is a disruption, parents would be notified.
“What we can’t talk about is a student’s specific discipline. We need to protect the privacy and rights of each student,” he said.
When the investigation is complete the person who complained receives a report that outlines if the incident was bullying. It says in very general terms what steps may be taken. The report won’t say if a student was suspended or not.
“I know it’s hard for parents to hear because they want all the information but imagine if the roles were reversed. Your son was alleged to be the bully. You wouldn’t want your son or daughter’s discipline to be shared with other parents,” Lehnerer said.
Why behavior speaks volumes
Students can be sent home for myriad reasons to regulate their behavior. At the kindergarten age, it could be the child is not feeling well and is tired.
“Because of that their behavior becomes dysregulated and we might contact the parents to pick up their child because they are not in the right place to be in school today. They look exhausted and just had a temper tantrum which can happen with a 6-yearold,” Lehnerer said.
If there is behavior that is unsafe where a student is threatening or hitting another student that could call for suspension. The important work that happens after suspension is to meet with the parents and student. Staff looks at if the family has the resources they need for the student to be successful.
“We can just suspend kids but the bigger issues that we see of behaviors of that type often require a greater wrap-around approach,” Lehnerer said.
There are many resources within the district such as mental health referrals, counselors and more to support students and families.
A parent would be asked what they see as reasons for the behavior.
“Behavior is a form of communication. Always. If there is a dysregulated 6-8-year-old there is a reason behind it,” he said.
“Communication is key. Parents know their kids best, and it is very helpful to know if a student recently experienced trauma. Or if a student is dysregulated because she didn’t sleep well the night before or their teeth are coming in,“ He said.
There needs to be conversations between the parents and teachers on how to proceed together.
“When kids and adults know better, they do better. We are trying to increase their knowledge pertaining to the feelings of others. I’ve seen growth in those areas in the 10 years I have been in the district,” Desua said.