NORWALK, Conn. — It’s one of parents’ biggest fears and children’s biggest problems. And now that it’s reached epidemic proportions, Norwalk’s elected officials are working together to create “groundbreaking” policy to protect the 3,950 local students at risk of being bullied by their peers.
“Essentially, we’re going to try to defend the defenseless as best as possible,” Councilman Nick Sacchinelli (D-At Large), chairman of the Health and Public Safety Committee, said Thursday.
While the Board of Education does its best to address bullying, Sacchinelli said, “from an enforcement standpoint…there’s very limited things we can do to enforce something that didn’t lead to an incident. So what I mean by that is, we can’t do anything until something bad has happened, right?”
Committee members agreed on the need for a more proactive, preventive approach. With the help of, among others, freshman Councilwoman Dominique Johnson (D-At Large), author of a dissertation on the subject, they are looking to create new law.
Board of Education member Erica DePalma, who attended the meeting as a guest, said the Board is rewriting its policy, and quoted statistics from No Bully, an anti-bullying organization. “One in three students are bullied in some form by their peers…In Norwalk that equates to more than 3,950 of our students that will be victim to bullying. It causes lasting physical and mental harm.”
DePalma, whose advertising agency vetted No Bully, said it uses evidence-based solutions to help schools write policy, proclamations and intervention protocols, using an “urban-focused” approach that includes webinars busy parents can access on their own.
“If you train staff, the education stays with that staff,” she said. “If you train students to become part of the solutions team, what happens is that education carries with them as they move through the system, but it also trickles down to their siblings, and it trickles down to the ball field and it trickles down to dance classes.
“This program has been able to quantify that they had a 90 percent success rate in eradicating bullying when programs (were) implemented with fidelity in schools.”
DePalma said the BOE hopes to tap into a grant to fund a pilot program for a yet-to-be-determined number of schools.
Sacchinelli said the Council is looking to develop “an overarching policy over anybody who has custodial responsibility over a minor,” including Norwalk Public Schools, parent, or guardian.
“There is a new state law in Connecticut regarding bullying to include only one incident,” De Palma said. “And that is largely based on cyber bullying and the fact that one single post can live on in the form of, you know, a viral share.”
She said that as a first step, No Bully recommends training rather than fining parents, a protocol supported by the Centers for Disease Control.
Council member Thomas Keegan (R-District D), a strong advocate for taking action, said NPS employees need to be trained to recognize when a child is suffering. “…We have to define what is bullying.”
Johnson said the Council “is bound by Connecticut State law as to what bullying is.”
“We’re really going to have to draw on a lot of the evidence base and the research knowing that oftentimes, it’s very difficult to prove any sort of causality. But we know that social emotional learning creates environments where bullying is less, we know that a school climate that’s positive has less bullying.”
The BOE is working on social emotional learning, according to DePalma, who described it as “teaching children empathy, teaching them how to regulate their emotions, be culturally aware. This is where we get to a point where they are regulating themselves…”
Sacchinelli said a policy that addresses bullying beyond “brick and mortar” would be “groundbreaking” for Norwalk. “…The awareness within the buildings is a big deal. But the bullying follows these kids home now, which is something that the schools can’t protect them against. So we’re hoping to put together something that’s enforceable that we can help protect these kids. And again it’s through awareness.”
Sacchinelli said the Health and Public Safety Committee is looking to narrow down the broad-based concern about bullying before handing the topic off to the Ordinance Committee to develop a new law to support the BOE and “create policy that is meaningful and enforceable.”