Thursday, January 6, 2011

NY School for the Deaf tackles bullying

From Newsday:

MELVILLE, N.Y. — When a deaf student bullies another using sign language, one insult hits deepest: the one meaning “you’re worthless, you’re nothing.”

The phrase is expressed in sign by wiggling both hands at hip level with index fingers and thumbs forming a circle, the other fingers outstretched. Teachers at the Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf in Nassau County, N.Y., know to look out for it.

Last year, they began to notice students reacting oddly to the sign for tiger — a sweeping gesture of the fingers from nose to forehead. Students looked hurt as if they’d been told they were worthless. In fact, they had — the sign for tiger had become the code word for the insult.

“The kids knew if they were caught bullying, they could get suspended or another consequence,” said Principal Kathleen Kerzner, whom students call Miss Katie. “Even though we got really good at catching the bully, it wasn’t changing the behavior. The kids just changed the signs and gave them new meanings.”

Bullying is a harsh fact of school life, whether in a large socially stratified high school or here, in a small, supportive school for deaf and hearing-impaired students. Studies show students with disabilities are at higher risk for being bullied and some may also be at risk to become bullies. Administrators have recognized the need to create schoolwide cultures where bullying no longer flourishes.

“Bullying has been going on forever,” Kerzner said. “Everything that goes on in any other school goes on here.”

This fall, Mill Neck Manor embarked on a six-week anti-bullying campaign involving its 120 students, from preschool to high school, who study in buildings on the wooded grounds of an old mansion near Long Island Sound.

Students participated in skits, role-playing and storytelling. They made anti-bullying posters and banners and wore “Be a Buddy, Not a Bully” T-shirts. Older students mentored younger students. Some played games and socialized with the sometimes-isolated autistic deaf students. They signed cards pledging not to bully, competed to make the best short film about bullying, wrote poems and created art.

In the preschool classes, students identified bullies in classic fairy tales (the wolf, the stepsisters) and earned colored sticks when they were especially nice to each other.

The campaign’s purpose, Kerzner said, was to find out how students experience and understand bullying in order to develop an appropriate plan of action.

“It’s like professional development of staff — to make a difference it has to be ongoing,” she said. “It has to become part of the culture of the school.”

For students, the school has a “big responsibility to explain a lot of things that are happening around them that no one else can explain to them,” Kerzner said, noting hearing-impaired children may live in families and cultures that do not understand sign language.

On a recent day near the end of the six-week campaign, Johan Sanchez and other seniors arrived at the classroom of fifth- and sixth-graders. The older students enacted scenes of hurtful behavior and the “right” way and the “wrong” way for bystanders to behave. Then the younger students played the roles, with much giggling and enthusiasm. At the end, they signed cards pledging not to bully.

This year’s seniors were not bullies, Kerzner said, “and I’m asking them to help make a change. ... It’s a moment in time that’s beautiful and I’m grabbing it.”

In past years, Mill Neck Manor dealt with bullying as many other schools do, with occasional assemblies and social education lessons, but more often by reactively addressing individual incidents.

“We realized kids were reporting problems, but the problem was still there,” Kerzner said. “I wanted the problem not to be there. I want the kids to come to school and feel safe and be in a situation where they can learn.”