According to an extensive post-election survey of youth conducted by the Human Rights Campaign, the majority of teens have witnessed bullying since the November 2016 election. Over 70 percent of the 51,000 youth who participated in the study observed race-based bullying, and 63 percent reported seeing harassment based on sexual orientation. Even before the election, librarians have been asking how they can best support students who worried about harassment because of their race, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation.
“Our office would get requests from librarians asking ‘How can we serve our communities? What are other people doing?’” says Jody Gray, director of the Office for Diversity Literacy and Outreach Services for the American Library Association (ALA), which started the #LibrariesRespond hashtag on Twitter as a way for librarians to share information and posted a page on the ALA website filled with links and resources to help library professionals address current events.
Librarians in key position to help
Since teacher librarians work with a broad spectrum of students, they are uniquely suited to build trusting relationships with many children. Social-emotional learning experts say that ideally, young people will have five caring adults in their lives. “Hopefully, they have one to two at home, but who are those other three?” asks Anne Ehresman, executive director of the non-profit group Project Cornerstone. “Librarians do have this really unique [opportunity] to listen, and direct and connect youth to resources.”
One way to support students is through reading materials. Research shows that books can play a key role in improving social-emotional learning, especially at the lower grades. A study published in 2015 by the California Association of School Psychologists followed 170 third and fourth graders in southern California. Called the Bullying Literature Project, some of the children participated in a five-session program involving picture books that teach recognizing bullying, peaceful ways to respond, and how to intervene.
“Children may have difficulty understanding and processing their experience of bullying, or be too embarrassed to discuss it with adults. Librarians and teachers should read children’s books related to bullying, discuss feelings, thoughts, and coping strategies. Reading can help students discuss difficult topics, such as bullying, and facilitate emotional healing and growth,” Cixin Wang, professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and one of the authors of the 2015 Bullying Literature Project, told SLJ. Bullying was reduced by 20 percent among the students who participated in the program.
Exchange of values and traditions important
In Santa Clara County, CA, the nonprofit Project Cornerstone trains adult volunteers to read books to children ages five to 11 in nearly 50 elementary schools, helping the kids to learn social-emotional skills. In addition to general bullying prevention programs, Project Cornerstone also offers a curriculum called Los Dichos, which in Spanish means a lesson from the homeland. According to the HRC post-election survey, Latino youth have been the most affected, reporting 20 percent more bullying than the other groups surveyed. Ehresman says that an important positive practice in schools with a large immigrant community is exchanging values and traditions, instead of expecting newcomers to assimilate. “Books can become a great gateway to understanding,” says Ehresman. “It’s beyond tolerance.”
Safe space guidelines
The term “safe space” has become a popular way for school librarians to describe their work spaces or media centers. But what makes a space safe? Courtney Macavinta, CEO of The Respect Institute, which works with schools and juvenile justice facilities in 27 states, says a safe space begins with a trusted adult. “You are aware, you understand trauma and what it looks like in children,” says Macavinta, adding that librarians can include youth in creating a respect pact. She suggests guidelines such as “No matter what we believe, school is a shared space and we can’t put people down at school, just like I wouldn’t support someone putting you down.”
It’s important for adults to address bullying as a behavior, not to frame the students themselves as “bullies.” Macavinta recommends using positive discipline and restorative practices when kids make mistakes. “A child using bigotry speech is a student too,” she notes. “And we don’t gain a lot by just suspending or pushing these kids out of school. We need to correct the problematic behavior.”
Where to turn for more help
Remember, librarians are not working in a vacuum. In the case of gender or sexual orientation targeting, the district’s Title IX office may provide resources or the framework for recording an incident. Even if a student isn’t personally being bullied, many kids—especially those from marginalized groups—still feel anxious. Here are some examples from the HRC survey:
- 35 percent of LGBTQ youth still think about the election every day, compared to only 26 percent of non-LGBTQ participants.
- Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu youth described concealing symbols of their faith for fear of harassment.
- Half of transgender youth reported feeling hopeless or worthless most of the time; 70 percent say such feelings have increased in the past 30 days
If a student is experiencing a lot of anxiety, a librarian may need to know when to refer the child to the school psychologist. “One of the advantages that educators have is that they know what is normal for that child,” says Katherine Cowan, director of communication for the National Association of School Psychologists. “Becoming quieter, constantly having stomachaches and going to the nurses’ office, and absenteeism are all signs that a librarian should ask what’s going on.”
Grace Hwang Lynch is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has written for PBS, PRI, Salon, and BlogHer. Follow her on Twitter @HapaMamaGrace.
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