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Creating Positive School Climate Change through Empowered Students

Although they may not always admit it, most kids look forward to the start of school. But for some, returning to the classroom can be terrifying.

New legislation may help ease their fears. The Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), which went into effect on July 1, requires public schools to make sure that no student suffers discrimination, harassment, or bullying. Cash-strapped school districts are turning to nonprofits to help them set policies, procedures, and guidelines to carry out the new law.

Child Abuse Prevention Services (CAPS) is one of Long Island’s leading organizations focused on bullying prevention. With a $25,000 grant from the Long Island Community Foundation in 2011, CAPS started a student-led campaign to promote tolerance, end bullying, and change culture. 

“School culture is the key factor that determines whether young people will be bullied or not,” said Alane Fagin, executive director of CAPS. “If culture changes, everything changes.” Sol Marie Alfonso Jones, LICF’s program director, believes that student leaders also contribute to school culture: “So much emphasis is placed on adults––teachers, parents, administrators—but it’s the students who are affected the most, so it only makes sense that they are actively involved in the solution.” 

CAPS tested its program at Clarke High School (East Meadow), Comsewogue High School (Port Jefferson), Central Islip High School, and Seaford High School, where it helped the schools create student leadership teams. Students United for Safe Schools (SUSS) developed activities, messages, and communication tools to tackle bullying and cyber bullying. SUSS students acted out ‘real-life’ skits during lunch periods to start kids talking; worked with art and photography students to create visually powerful messages; and taught younger students how to stop future incidents of bullying, reaching more than 9,000 peers. As one SUSS student commented: “We have to bring this into the classrooms, into the cafeteria, online, we have to make it so no one can say they didn’t know it was happening.” 

Joseph Coniglione, principal at Comsewogue High, was proud to report that its student team will be going to Washington in November to receive the Promising Practice Award. It recognizes schools, school clusters, or districts that demonstrate an outstanding character education program that produces positive results in student behavior, school climate, and academic performance. 

Anti-bullying messages from the Students United for Safe Schools 

(SUSS) team. Photos courtesy of Comsewogue High School

At the program’s outset, each participating school survey edits students to assess their attitudes and behavior, as well as the overall climate of the school. Two classes in each grade were surveyed, providing a random sample. CAPS repeated the survey at the end of the school year to assess the efficacy of the program. 

“As we all know, change doesn’t occur overnight, but we were pleased to see certain changes that had occurred in a short period of time,” explained CAPS director Fagin.

“For example, in one school, the survey indicated that there was almost an 8 percent increase in the response to ‘students standing up for one another when they see a peer being mistreated either in school or online.’ For us, this was particularly significant because one of our objectives was to mobilize youth from bystander to ‘upstander.’” In that same school, Fagin reports they saw a 4 percent decrease in the incidence of sexting by the end of the school year. 

Fagin adds: “The Long Island Community Foundation has given CAPS a unique opportunity to systemically facilitate shaping positive school culture and changing peer norms using a whole school approach.” 

“This project really unites the students, teachers, and administrators and has already had a substantial impact of naturally changing school culture to where all students feel a sense of respect, safety, and belonging,” affirmed David Okorn, executive director of LICF. “It certainly shows promise as a model for culture change in schools across New York State.” 

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