Jewish groups teach local schools how to get tough with bullies

One day last year in Greg Leveque’s art room at Charlotte Wood Middle School in Danville, a student began yelling at him.

“Faggot,” the boy shouted at his art teacher. “You’re a faggot.”

Gloria Moskowitz-Sweet

Leveque kicked him out of the classroom and sent him to the principal’s office. Leveque explained to the other students that kind of inflammatory language would never be tolerated in his or anyone else’s classroom on campus.

The boy’s father was soon called. In the principal’s office, he crossed his arms and turned to Leveque

“But you’re gay. So what’s the problem?” the father asked.

Leveque was bewildered. How could he teach tolerance if a student learned bigotry at home?

On Feb. 11, Leveque and his colleagues attended a training session, sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, that would give all teachers the proper tools should they ever encounter a situation like Leveque did.

Nina Grotch

School staff were required to attend. Joined by parents and district administrators, teachers sat in the school’s library as ADL staffer Nina Grotch advised educators how to create and sustain a safe, accepting and bully-free environment for all students — and all teachers.

“If we begin in middle school to hold students accountable for their words and their actions, then it will provide them with a foundation of accountability when they get to high school,” Leveque said.

“I applaud the ADL for extending their hand to our school and for the work they’re trying to do with districts to help raise awareness and effectively combat discrimination on our campuses.”

But the ADL isn’t the only Jewish organization addressing bullying.

Parents Place at Jewish Family and Children’s Services in Palo Alto last year began offering a bullying prevention program known as Steps to Respect.

The need for anti-bullying initiatives is proven: One-third of American schoolchildren (or 5.7 million) are involved in some type of bullying, either as the bullied or the bully, according to the Center for the Prevention of School Violence. Of those bullied, one-third tell no one what they are experiencing.

The recent ADL-led workshop grew out of a November panel in Danville for Jewish parents, who shared with ADL staffers and others their frustrations and concerns that the needs of Jewish students were not being met.

After a series of district and parent meetings, officials agreed to schedule the ADL workshop to discuss these issues with staff and faculty. The Feb. 11 training explored responses to bullying and name calling as well as the connection between these acts and acts of hate.

ADL trainers talked not only about anti-Semitism, but also racism and homophobia

One-third of American schoolchildren are involved in some type of bullying, either as the bullied or the bully.

“The most important thing I learned,” Leveque said, “was to check my bias. I came away from the presentation asking: What are my biases? Where would I be less likely to interact? Where would I intervene? For example, a homophobic teacher might be less inclined to effectively address a slanderous comment.”

Anti-bullying education has become more common in the past several years, as educators have realized that students cannot successfully learn — or meet state benchmarks — in an environment where they don’t feel safe.

The tipping point came within the past few years, when a new kind of bullying — cyberbullying — entered the lexicon and the school culture. Cyberbullying can happen via e-mails, instant messages, text messages or blogs, to name a few.

The ADL has served as a resource to nearly 80 schools in the Bay Area via its national diversity education program, which includes workshops and trainings for teachers, administrators and parents.

The program also trains students to be peer educators and empowers them to stand up to hatred and intolerance in their communities.

“It’s great the way the ADL has taken their original charge [to fight anti-Semitism] and really expanded it to include all the different diverse groups that experience cruelty in our society,” said Sandy Budde, principal at Charlotte Wood Middle School.

JFCS’ training, like the ADL’s, is also aimed at school administrators, teachers and parents. It focuses on schools and communities working together to create systemic change and increase student safety in a school environment.

Twenty-one schools or Parent Teacher Associations have asked JFCS to train staff in its bullying prevention program.

“We talk about the many faces of social cruelty,” said Gloria Moskowitz-Sweet, coordinator of the Parents Place Community Education Center in Palo Alto.

The training proposes that children are not bullies, but are trying on “bullying behavior” — which suggests that bullying is a learned behavior that can be changed.

It also talks about the “bystander,” students who watch their peers being bullied but don’t speak up —  accounting for 85 percent of a school’s population.

“If we can empower the bystander to stand up, speak up and act out against injustice, then we can shift the school culture and climate, and that’s the goal,” said Moskowitz-Sweet.

For information on bullying prevention, contact Nina Grotch at the ADL, (415) 981-3500 ext. 227 or [email protected], or Gloria Moskowitz-Sweet at JFCS, (650) 688-3037 or [email protected].

The ADL is hosting a summit for educators about cyberbullying on April 3 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Microsoft Silicon Valley Campus in Mountain View. Registration required by contacting Nina Grotch at (415) 981-3500 or at [email protected].


Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.