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Safe Schools Summit focuses on creating anti-bullying climate

  • Dr. Charles Hopkins speaks at the inaugural Safe School Summit Wednesday at Smith College. The summit focuses on bullying and school environments.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Dr. Charles Hopkins speaks at the inaugural Safe School Summit Wednesday at Smith College. The summit focuses on bullying and school environments.
    JOSH KUCKENS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Gina Kahn speaks at the Safe School Summit, which focused on bullying and school environments.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Gina Kahn speaks at the Safe School Summit, which focused on bullying and school environments.
    JOSH KUCKENS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Maru Gonzalez speaks at theSafe School Summit Wednesday at Smith College, an event that focused on bullying and school environments.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Maru Gonzalez speaks at theSafe School Summit Wednesday at Smith College, an event that focused on bullying and school environments.
    JOSH KUCKENS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dr. Charles Hopkins speaks at the inaugural Safe School Summit Wednesday at Smith College. The summit focuses on bullying and school environments.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Gina Kahn speaks at the Safe School Summit, which focused on bullying and school environments.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Maru Gonzalez speaks at theSafe School Summit Wednesday at Smith College, an event that focused on bullying and school environments.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

— Creating a public school climate that prevents bullying and discrimination may seem like a complicated task.

But as experts at an inaugural Safe School Summit Wednesday at Smith College pointed out, some of the most effective strategies are also the simplest.

“One of the most powerful things a teacher can do is to stand in the doorway as the kids come in, shake their hands and look them in the eye,” said panelist Charles Hopkins, director of special education for the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School in South Hadley. “That starts to establish the foundational notion of respect.”

Listening to students is also key to creating a safe school, Hopkins said. As an example, he described his daily “lunch duty” at PVPA, which does not have a cafeteria. Instead, students circulate throughout the building, eat outside or in classrooms with their teachers.

“It’s amazing the stories we hear when the kids just drop by,” said Hopkins, one of four experts on an afternoon summit panel. “It’s a time for the adults to listen in and find those teachable moments.”

Sponsored by the Northwestern district attorney’s office, the summit focused on concrete action steps schools can take to curb bullying and discrimination. More than 120 public school administrators, teachers and counselors from districts in Franklin and Hampshire counties came to Smith’s Conference Center near Paradise Pond to take part.

Speakers included District Attorney David E. Sullivan, national anti-bullying author Rachel Simmons, who lives in Northampton, and Christopher Overtree, co-founder of the New Hampshire-based Center for School Climate and Learning and a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Since passage of the state’s anti-bullying law in 2010, Sullivan said, many area schools have made strides in educating students about bullying and discrimination.

“Hampshire and Franklin County have some of the most responsive school systems when it comes to school climate,” the district attorney said in an interview before Wednesday’s event. “We want to make sure all of our schools are on the cutting edge of dealing with anti-bullying.”

Panelist Maru Gonzalez, who co-founded the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition in 2009, described what it was like to found a gay/straight alliance in “Newt Gingrich’s home school district.”

She said it is essential to involve students in efforts to curb racism, homophobia and other forms of intolerance in schools. “The work I do is about creating a safe space where students can empower themselves,” Gonzalez said. “These efforts have to be student-initiated.”

Panelist Gina S. Kahn, who is director of Safe Schools/Healthy Students program of the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional Schools, said resources for school anti-bullying efforts are also important.

“We cannot do this work alone and it’s not free,” she said.

But Kahn emphasized that funding can’t be the main motivation for creating a safe climate for all students. “It’s not the answer, it’s merely a tool,” she said. “Some of our best strategies have come from the grants that didn’t get approved.”

When asked, during a question-and-answer session, where school climate is on the state’s agenda, panelist Anne Gilligan, who coordinates Massachusetts’ Safe and Drug-Free Schools program, encouraged school leaders to link the issue to larger educational concerns.

“College and career readiness are the issues at the forefront for the state. So you want to tie yourselves to that,” she said. “A safe school climate is how children become college- and career-ready.”

Andrea McCallum, assistant principal of White Brook Middle School in Easthampton, said the summit gave her ideas to take back to colleagues. “I think we’re going to have some great conversations,” she said.

McCallum believes White Brook is “somewhat ahead of the game” in involving students in anti-bullying programs — and other positive changes at the school.

“We have peer mediators and a student senate,” she said. “Those are the avenues where this education can happen.”

Mary Custard of Amherst Regional High School noted that Amherst students are leading efforts to create a safe climate. She cited the “ask me” stickers that students in the upper grades wear to encourage younger students to ask for help.

“A lot of what we’ve done has not cost a lot of money. It’s just taken energy,” said Custard, dean of students for ninth- and 11th-graders in Amherst. “We know this is ongoing work but we feel we’re on the right track.”

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