As recreational professionals, we are not strangers to the antics of children and youth, yet over time the level and variety of abuse in our recreational programs has escalated beyond the standard playground fights over a ball. Today’s children and youth see a plethora of adults modeling unacceptable behaviors in media, the news and in person. What used to be an individual’s internal thoughts are now blasted over social media platforms, often accompanied by disturbing language and attitudes, under a veil of anonymity. The City of Oakland and Oakland Parks and Recreation (OPR) pushed forward to create and implement a zero-tolerance anti-bullying policy as of 2010. This includes bullying behaviors as well as abusive or hateful language and actions in our programs and facilities.
The bullying situations that children experience in nearby schools often spill out into after-school recreation programs. Instituting a mutually beneficial policy between agencies is key to training young minds to be open and understanding, and knowing the impact of their words and actions. Training family members in the “it takes a village” mentality often proves to be more of a challenge, but teaching adults how to deal with bullying behaviors in youth and teens is well worth the effort. The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has a strong anti-bullying policy, and OPR has adopted and mirrored much of its expectations.
The OPR policy is a contract shared with parents and families so everyone involved understands the program’s expectations. It is read with and signed by the child and his or her guardians, and is then kept on file for the year. We refer back to the contract when issues arise so we can remind the child of the rules to which he or she agreed. The contract lists expectations and the consequences of falling short of those guidelines should they be needed. Each OPR site creates its contract to fit a specific program’s needs using basic departmental expectations. Centers with gyms often face a different set of bullying issues than sites that have public swimming pools or preschool programs.
OPR aims to use conflict-resolution techniques to teach tolerance when a negative incident has occurred. We conduct large group activities early in the program to inform all participants of the rules. Younger children are asked to help write the rules so they can discuss in a group setting why some words hurt and need to be avoided. As the younger children grow, we hope that much of what we teach, preach and outreach sticks with them through their development. Since implementing the anti-bullying policy, we are seeing many bad situations turn into opportunities for forgiveness and training. In 2013, a teen riding on a city bus was lit on fire by another student who found his skirt disturbing. The Oakland community came out and supported not only the youth who was burned, but the teaching opportunity for the boy who caused the pain and his family. We see this as a success, hopefully preventing future harmful acts and simplifying the response of responsible adults.
Several nonprofit groups have offered training services to schools, parks and even corporate businesses to teach staff and patrons about that entity’s rules and requirements when it comes to anti-bullying or anti-discrimination protocols. OPR has used San Francisco, California-based No Bully for its staff training for the past four years. No Bully’s training provides OPR workers with the minimum required legal and moral information so as an entity, we know our staff understands what we can and cannot do in our programs. Another group, Stand for the Silent, fights in memory of those who committed suicide after bullying left them feeling hopeless. We are hoping to prevent this sort of tragedy by being proactive with our policies and training.
OPR’s anti-bullying contract lists two basic rules:
Never hurt others with my words or body, and
Inform adults if I see bullying or have been bullied by another person.
This is about as simple as it can get. Kids, staff and parents can all agree and adhere to treating everyone with respect or they may turn to the process in place to correct any issues. Bullying is not something that should be ignored, accepted or neglected, ever.
Michelle Doppelt is a Recreation Supervisor for Oakland Parks and Recreation in Oakland, California.