Students Take on the Fight Against Bullying

Adilka Pimentel, a youth coordinator with Make the Road, with students Stephanie Valera and Julián Alejandro. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Stephanie Valera is only 17 years old but, in addition to her responsibilities as a high school senior at Brooklyn’s Bushwick School for Social Justice, she is a leader in fighting conflict among her fellow students. Alongside other students being trained for the task, Mexican-born Valera is one of the ambassadors for the restorative justice project of the school …The project aims to tackle conflict among students, including cases of bullying, through dialogue instead of punishment.

The program, which operates in only a small number of the 1,600 public schools in the city’s system, has been defined by its promoters as a useful, effective tool in the fight against violence.

“We, the students, are the ones who know best what is going on, and many times they do not take us into account when it comes to solving things and resort to suspensions instead, which does not work,” said the young woman. (…) “When a fight happens or we learn about a problem, the ambassadors go to the students involved and find out the reasons why they acted the way they did, what originated the fight. By doing this, we have been able to keep many youths in their classes with a sense of peace and without tension, even if they are not the best of friends.”

The teenager, who received a scholarship to study political science at a Pennsylvania college beginning next year, added that a common mistake made by schools wishing to address violence and bullying issues is to apply punishments or simply offer a workshop or two.

“In my life, I have never met someone who has not been through that at some point. When it happened to me, all I needed was someone to talk to and to trust, but sometimes they do not ask you what you need,” said Valera, who was trained at the organization Make the Road New York, which is collaborating with the school.

Julián Alejandro, of Costa Rican and Puerto Rican parents and another one of the ambassadors managing conflicts at the Bushwick school, explained that training activities and community circles are carried out every week under the supervision of an adult coordinator. In them, students can talk about ways to solve their differences.

“We are not saying that we are superheroes who will solve every problem just by reaching out to someone, but our mission is to create spaces and conversations to build trust so we can start working with them in helping them solve their conflicts, as every action has deep roots that we need to look at in order to remedy a problem,” said the 17-year-old.

Alejandro wants to become a high school teacher and to expand his legacy in New York’s schools. “I think that the greatest achievement in all this is that, now, students, teachers and directors know that there are alternatives to punitive measures and that dialogue works, as these initiatives have helped decrease suspensions significantly and the school is a safer space.”

Adilka Pimentel, a youth advocate with the organization Make the Road New York, said that she is proof that conflict resolution programs and student support work.

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“I graduated from this same school. The program was much smaller back then but, had it not been for the program, who knows where I would be right now, because it is normal for you to act a certain way when you are 16 or 17, as you are still learning a lot about yourself,” said the student, born in the Dominican Republic. “It has been demonstrated that dialogue and support can prevent fights and bullying incidents because everyone is on the same page, while suspensions are just a superficial band-aid that can make the lives of many youths worse.”

Flaws in the handling of bullying cases

A few months ago, the activist attended a hearing convened by the City Council to hold school authorities accountable for flaws in handling bullying cases after two students were stabbed in a Bronx school in September. There, Pimentel made a petition to the Department of Education (DOE). (…)

“The problems and needs seen in Bushwick are not unique. Like the rest of New York’s schools, we need investments in more guides, more counselors, more social workers, more restorative justice practices, more resources to make people get from high school to college, and less money spent on security guards and metal detectors,” said Pimentel, who recommended that these programs are initiated in the lower grades. (…)

Council member Ydanis Rodríguez, who was a school teacher in New York for 13 years, defended the work of conflict management ambassadors and criticized the lack of guidance counselors in New York schools, where there is currently one for every 500 students. The national average is one counselor for every 285 students. “These programs are very effective in helping students and getting to the root of bullying and, if they are promoted more extensively and if the number of counselors is increased, a real difference will be made,” said the political leader.

The DOE did not specifically say if it intends to expand the conflict management ambassadors program to more New York schools, but said that the city invests $47 million per year in initiatives to improve school environments and to support mental health programs, in addition to $8 million in a new anti-bullying initiative.

“We are committed to providing a safe, supportive learning environment, and we have made significant investments to expand vital school environment and mental health programs focused on the underlying causes of conflict,” said Miranda Barbot, a spokeswoman for the DOE. She did not reveal the number of bullying cases reported in schools last year. “Through a proactive, preventive focus, we are building environments that allow students to grow academically and supporting the development of their socio-emotional skills.”

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