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Fighting bullying during a pandemic

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The Dignity for All Students Act was signed into law on Sept. 13, 2010. DASA prohibits harassment and bullying, including cyberbullying, and/or discrimination, by employees or students on school property or at a school function.

Schools are required to develop and implement programs that ensure all students can learn in a safe environment that is conducive to learning. The term "safe environment" almost seems quaint given the variables schools have to address during this difficult time. Considerable time and effort has been expended to develop and implement the reopening of schools that can safely reduce the risks of contracting COVID-19. This is and should be the priority. However, I fear that it will be difficult to implement anti-bullying programs during this crisis. We will see manifestations of bullying behavior during this pandemic.

Bullying can be defined as an imbalance of power, where the bullies repeatedly target their victims. Bullies are adept at identifying their most vulnerable classmates. A great deal has been written about increasing anxiety among students before COVID-19. This can only exasperate this concern. Students displaying anxiety-related behaviors are easy victims. They may display behaviors that are atypical from their classmates. They may have a difficult time dealing with variable schedules.

Students with disabilities have become more vulnerable during the pandemic due to lack of access to services and the nature of their specific disability. How will students who thrive on structure respond to this situation? Many will engage in behaviors that others may ridicule. Recently a segment on NPR included a parent of a child with a disability who gained weight due to lack of in-person schooling, boredom and inactivity. She was worried that he would be picked on because of his weight. Bullies will find the vulnerabilities and seize upon them.

What about students who cannot tolerate wearing masks? Will they receive negative comments about this behavior? The wearing of masks, not wearing masks, the kinds of masks students wear may be a category of bullying that we never anticipated. I can imagine students being made fun of for wearing masks outside of school or students commenting on the cost, the quality and the popularity of specific masks. The list is endless. What is clear is that we need to be vigilant and prepare for the new manifestation in our classes.

Finally, some students may feel inadequate when they are learning virtually and everyone can see their homes. This crisis has shed light on the inequalities in our society, and schools are just one component. We knew this, but it is so obvious now. Many students have been victimized for their appearance and lack of having the clothing or item of the moment. This is not new. However, what is new is that there will be students who will become targets because of their socioeconomic status and lack of adequate technology. Additionally, cyberbullying, that is, the use of any electronic device for the purpose of bullying/harassment, will most likely increase, given the increased use of technology. Families need to monitor their children’s online presence. Yet another thing that overworked and overwhelmed families have to deal with during COVID-19.

There is some good news. Schools in New York State have implemented programs to address bullying /harassment. Schools have DASA coordinators, and parents who suspect that their children are victims should contact them. If you are still unsure, contact your school’s principal. By anticipating the different manifestations of bullying during COVID-19, schools can be prepared to provide effective interventions. You may think that being aware of bullying at this time is not equivalent to the life-or-death situations many have encountered over these past months. And it is not. However, know that many victims of bullying suffer from depression and in a number of instances they see no other option than to take their own lives. This can be a matter of life or death.

Barry E. McNamara is professor of education and associate dean of the School of Education at Concordia College in Bronxville.

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