September 16, 2019

The ‘B’ Word: Jewish day schools take steps to prevent bullying

It’s tempting to think bullying would never happen among nice Jewish kids at a nice Jewish day school. But the statistics tell another story. 

More than one-third of all youths overall have been bullied, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And a 2010 study (the most recent year for which these figures are available) by the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics of more than 43,000 high-school students found that boys at private religious schools were the most likely to say they had bullied, teased or taunted someone in the previous months.

Local Jewish day schools are doing their best to be proactive and stop bullying before it starts. 

“It’s the thing everyone is talking about,” said Lana Marcus, head of school at Adat Ari El Day School in Valley Village. 

Adat Ari El, for example, recently brought in the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which offers about a dozen different educational programs through its A World of Difference Institute. On Sept. 30, it conducted two-hour anti-bullying presentations with third- and fourth-graders and separately with fifth- and sixth-graders.

“Part of it is preparing [our students] for middle school — not just for being bullied, but looking at ways for them to be supportive and helpful,” Marcus said. 

The presentation by Pam Cysner and Gustavo Guerra Vasquez defined bullying as “when a person or a group behaves in ways on purpose over and over that make someone feel hurt, afraid or embarrassed.” (This is important because, many educators say, kids and parents tend to call anything uncomfortable — from the taking of toys to a birthday party invitation not issued — “bullying.”) 

The ADL program also gave students a new vocabulary with which to consider bullying — “target,” “aggressor,” “bystander” and “ally” — and provided them with multiple opportunities to examine the various roles. One exercise required students to break into small groups and study illustrations of bullying in action: a group of boys taunting some girls for instance, a boy receiving an email calling him “Loser.” Then each group had to create a story explaining what was happening in their particular picture and, ultimately, present the story to the larger group.

In the final exercise, the kids tried out various ally strategies while Cysner and Guerra Vasquez role-played: “Gustavo,” Cysner teased, “you’re so girlie.” Several third- and fourth-graders approached, one at a time. One led Guerra Vasquez, the target, away from the aggressor. Another confronted the aggressor, saying, “That’s not nice,” and even demanded an apology on behalf of the target. Still another threatened to tell a trusted adult. 

When the facilitators asked the children at the end who among them was an ally, every hand in the room shot up. 

But this was just one program on one day. The school is employing longer-term strategies to help make its students mensches. Tali Mekahel, the school’s director of Judaic studies, created a sort of passport of “Easy Mitzvah” activities for students to use with options such as, “Invite a classmate you never invited for a play date,” and “Make a ‘get well’ card to someone in your class.” When a student completes a mitzvah, they earn a stamp. 

It’s all about encouraging pro-social behavior, which is the predominant strategy at local Jewish schools. At Temple Emanuel Academy Day School in Beverly Hills, teachers and administrators give out green “choice cards” with categories that can be checked off such as “helping a friend” and “keeping it positive.” (The cards were inspired by the principles in Ken Blanchard’s book, “Whale Done!: The Power of Positive Relationships.”)

“The theory behind it is rather than recognize the child that is misbehaving, you reward students with a green choice card,” said Melissa Rajani, the school’s director of curriculum and third- and fourth-grade general studies teacher. “We try to make it more of a sporadic thing, so it means something to earn a green card.”

Staff also have yellow and red cards to be used for undesirable behavior. A red card, Rajani said, means a student is having a “really awful day” and also means parents are contacted immediately. But these are used sparingly, and “the focus is on green,” Rajani said.

Wise School at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air employs a similar system created by school counselor Jana Luber in close conjunction with the faculty. Called the PAWS (Positive, Appreciative, Wise and Safe) Program, it uses raffle-type tickets with a red paw design that references the school mascot, the Wise Wildcat. 

“Administrators and staff try to find opportunities to catch kids doing the right thing,” said Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback, head of school. 

When this happens, the student is given a ticket. These tickets are then deposited in a jar kept in each classroom, making it what Zweiback calls “a communal endeavor.” 

“At the end of the month, the class that has gotten the most PAWS usually gets a little something [such as a pizza party],” he said.

Ultimately though, he added, “Jewish values provide the best foundation imaginable to increase the likelihood that kids — and adults as well — will experience the kind of loving and positive interactions that we crave and deserve.”

It is these values, such as kavod (honor or respect) and chesed (loving-kindness) — and the fact that they weren’t adequately reflected in the existing character education programs they found — that compelled Kristi Combs, principal of Kadima Day School in West Hills, and Anthea Canes, Judaic studies coordinator, to create their own program this summer, called The Kadima Way. 

“It’s a values-based program integrated into all aspects of the school,” Combs said.

Each month highlights a different value — for instance, derech eretz, or respect and responsibility. For the school’s kindergartners, this means including others in play, sharing toys and cleaning up after themselves. For seventh-graders, it has meant discussions with school head Bill Cohen about behavior expectations at bar and bat mitzvahs: how to act in a synagogue, how to act at a party. 

“It’s not just about being inside a classroom,” Combs said. 

Other values included in The Kadima Way are courage and compassion.

“We’re ending the year with ‘self-worth,’ and everybody being recognized for who they are,” Canes said. “Believe in yourself.” 

Every month, two students from each grade level are recognized for best exemplifying the current value. Their names and pictures go on a special bulletin board, and the elementary school honorees are issued The Kadima Way tags that they can wear proudly.

One indication that the program is working is that students have adopted its language, according to its creators.

“You hear in the hallway, ‘That’s The Kadima Way,’ ” Canes said. “Or teachers complimenting kids, ‘That is exactly what we expect when we talk about The Kadima Way.’ ”

An often-overlooked aspect of anti-bullying education is parental buy-in. 

“The ideal approach is to work with all stakeholders at a school,” said Dave Reynolds, project director of the ADL’s local A World of Difference Institute. “It’s not just about classroom teachers, but bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and educating families so when students learn, parents are augmenting [that learning]. Schools that do a comprehensive approach tend to get much better results.”

At Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am on La Cienega Boulevard, the parents of seventh-graders are brought into the conversation through a parent-teen council held in November. Two staff facilitators, both therapists, talk about various roles in different bullying scenarios. 

“Parents unpack their own stories of childhood,” middle school principal Inez Tiger said. “For example, ‘The time I had bystander behavior or bully behavior,’ or, ‘A time I was an ally.’ They are pretty meaningful.” 

However, Tiger added, “You have to look at it as one step in a much bigger plan. You don’t walk away from a seventh-grade evening and say, ‘No more bullying.’ It’s about building a culture.” 

To that end, Pressman students participate in No Name-Calling Week in January, an initiative created by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. They also have an annual Mix It Up at Lunch Day when kids have lunch with kids they don’t ordinarily sit with. 

Perhaps most importantly, they do “a lot of proactive social-emotional building,” said Erica Rothblum, Pressman head of school. This includes encouraging kids to look each other in the eye and be deep listeners.

“Bullying knows no bounds,” she said. “[But] we’re going to be proactive. We’re not going to look away.”