featured alumna | Dr. Debra Lay
Not at my school
One principal’s mission to ban bullying
For Debra Lay, her own high school struggles have
Debra Lay, EdD ’10
Building a safe community
Although Lay, Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership (EdD) ’10, has been in her current position for just one year—she first worked as a classroom teacher for 11 years and then as an assistant principal for a few more—she has a clear vision of the future of her school. “After coming here and absorbing the culture for a year,” she says, “my goal is to make this feel like more of a community.” PRMS has just two grades, seventh and eighth, and those two years pass by quickly. “There’s a feeling that the kids come in and go out,” she explains.
On top of the brevity of their time at PRMS, these students also are at an age where they are experiencing a lot of change, including adjusting to their new school. “They are developing puberty issues on top of the fact that they may be struggling with transitional issues,” says Lay. “It’s the perfect storm.”
For some students, these emotional struggles can translate into bullying. This can manifest itself as teasing, name calling, exclusion, intimidation and even physical violence. Those on the receiving end of bullying may be reluctant to tell anyone since many grew up in a culture where tattling was discouraged. “The difference [between tattling and reporting bullying] is the intention of what is happening,” says Lay. “Was that push an accident, or did you mean to do it?” Lay is working to create a community where students feel they can safely report bullying and that their disclosure will result in consequences for the bully.
Lay explains that middle school-age children are often reluctant to tell their parents or other trusted adults when they are the victim of bullying for other reasons, too. “They can be very covert,” she says. There are warning signs that parents can watch for, though, such as drastic, negative changes in their children. “When I talk to parents, I tell them, ‘If you see a child who is typically happy go right to his or her room and not want to talk, that could be a red flag.’”
Kids who are bullied may also look for excuses to avoid going to school, even if they enjoyed it before. Lay encourages parents to contact the school if they suspect their children might be struggling with bullying.
Creating a system of support
Massachusetts, where Lay is, recently adopted new anti-bullying legislation aimed at putting a stop to this age-old problem. “The legislation outlines that schools have to have professional development [around bullying] in line for teachers, students and parents. We also have to have a reporting mechanism for our students,” she says. “Every school in Massachusetts has to submit their [anti-bullying] plan to the Department of Education here.”
Lay is pleased with this new law, though she cautions that flexibility is still important when dealing with bullying. “It’s a black and white law for a gray subject,” she submits.
At PRMS, Lay held a staff meeting at the beginning of the school year to make sure everyone was aware of the new law. Then, she got to work creating a school improvement plan with measurable actions around it. “I keep myself up on the latest research [on bullying] and attend workshops,” she adds. Lay has teamed up with her school psychologist, assistant principal and others to implement a curriculum that teaches pro-social skills to students. “Pro-social skills are positive, assertive communications skills,” she says. “It teaches kids what to do when they run up against obstacles and how to manage their anger and communicate effectively.”
Principal Debra Lay with Pentucket Regional Middle School students from the musical production, Kamp Kaos.
Lay has seen the difference a supportive environment and the right training can have for kids who are being bullied. One former student with Asperger’s syndrome struggled with bullying but stopped reporting it because he didn’t think the school was doing anything about it. “[Kids with Asperger’s] look for justice and see things in black and white,” Lay explains. She and the school psychologist worked with him to help him understand that there were in fact consequences for his bullies. “We built trust with him and assured him that things were happening even though he couldn’t see it. We were successful because he began to report bullying again, and the bullying ultimately subsided.”
Lay is determined to create an environment where bullying is not tolerated, but she knows she can’t fight the battle alone. “It takes good eyesight and keen hearing by everyone in the school community,” she says. “It all goes back to creating a culture where our kids feel safe enough to report bullying.”
facilitated workshops on anti-bulling, offers the
following tips to help stop bulling in its tracks:
Attend workshops or presentations on bullying when your child’s school offers them. Lay suggests visiting the Anti-Defamation League’s Bullying Resource Center at www.adl.org/combatbullying or learning about the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program at www.olweus.org.
|2Monitor your child’s electronic communications.
In an age where even some fourth graders carry cell phones comes a new issue: cyber-bullying. Lay encourages parents to remind their kids that there is no such thing as privacy online. Stay aware of what your child is doing on Facebook, texting, email and other electronic communications so you can monitor for signs of bullying.
|3Stay in touch with
If your child is finding reasons to stay away from school, contact the school to help find out why.
|4Remember that you know best.
It’s natural for kids to think they know it all and that their parents don’t. Kids are not at an age where they make the best decisions, and it is up to parents to help steer them in the right direction.