The go-to place for programs to combat bullying in schools

Mary Jo Kaska, new programming director Hope for Peace and Justice, says the organization will focus on private schools

Kaska1

Mary Jo Kaska

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

Mary Jo Kaska, the new director of programming for Hope for Peace and Justice, hopes her organization becomes the go-to place for help in establishing anti-bullying policies, especially for private schools in Texas.

Right now, the biggest program at Hope for Peace and Justice is its Safe Schools Project.

“We’ve taken the stand that all school districts need enumerated categories,” she said. “The addition of those enumerated categories spells out for young people that the kind of bullying they’ve seen in their schools frequently is no longer tolerated.”

Kaska said that Hope for Peace and Justice is creating its own standard for an anti-bullying program that is research-based, comparing the rollout of this policy to the way Nolan High School, where she taught, introduced its harassment policy.

“We developed a code,” she said. “We talked to boys and girls separately — straight on — explaining what harassment was, [how] what they did before was harassment and won’t be tolerated.”

She said a successful policy sets out who to go to and what happens when the rules are violated.

When that happens, she said, “suddenly a bell goes off before a student does something. It’s an educational process. You’re creating a safe climate, a safe culture.”

The regulations articulate a set of values and a policy, she said.

While H4PJ would be happy to work with public schools that need assistance, Kaska said the organization’s focus is on private schools. Despite the law passed in this year’s session of the Texas Legislature, she said many private schools feel exempt because they don’t receive public funding.

One step in making schools safer, she Kaska, is training teachers to intervene.

“What I like about the Texas law is that it requires the whole program to be on the district website,” she said.

Posting the policy she said is important for private schools too.

Once criteria are finalized, Kaska said H4PJ will be contacting private schools throughout the Dallas area first and then throughout the state. Its consulting services will be available to schools for free, and paid for by H4PJ contributors.

“Then our website will be one-stop shopping for the best anti-bullying resources,” Kaska said.

“Private schools are already doing so many things right,” she said, but added that some simple changes will help make schools a little bit safer.

“We want schools to be able to promote their success stories,” Kaska said. “Upload videos showing things that are working. Foster student leadership and participation in developing a respectful and welcoming school environment.”

Kaska was hired after group founder and president Michael Piazza moved to Atlanta earlier this year. She said that although her organization is based at Cathedral of Hope, it is incorporated as a separate non-profit organization.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 18, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Another DISD trustee comes out in support of a bullying policy that protects gay, transgender kids

Bernadette Nutall

A second Dallas Independent School District trustee spoke out publicly this week in support of a bullying policy that provides specific protections for gay and transgender students.

Trustee Bernadette Nutall, who represents District 9, said she’s asked DISD staff to draft a proposed policy that protects as many categories of students as possible, including those who may be bullied on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.

Nutall joins trustee Lew Blackburn among those who’ve publicly stated their support for an LGBT-inclusive bullying policy.

The district has been considering a new bullying policy, but as originally drafted by the DISD administration, the proposal didn’t include specific categories of students that would be protected.

Jon Dahlander, a spokesman for the district, suggested last week that a new bullying policy isn’t necessary because DISD already has an anti-harassment policy that includes sexual orientation.

But Nutall disagreed.

“Harassment is bullying, but how many kids come home and say, ‘Mom, I was harassed today’?” Nutall told Instant Tea on Wednesday, Oct. 27. “Can’t we just keep it simple?

“I think we need to be very clear, if you mistreat someone because they are different or because they’re not like you, there are consequences for your actions,” Nutall said.

Nutall said she was bullied as a child and currently has a daughter in middle school in the district. She also said she’s a devout Baptist but believes people need to set aside their personal beliefs.

“Ultimately you have to protect all people whether you agree with them or not,” Nutall said. “It’s not about that, it’s about you have the right to be who you are.”

Nutall said she’s forwarded to district staff copies of policies from places like Broward County, Fla., and Philadelphia that include sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.

Despite likely opposition from the religious right, which is fighting LGBT-inclusive bullying policies nationally, Nutall is confident her proposal will receive support from a majority of the nine-member DISD board when the policy comes back up for a vote, which is expected to be sometime in November.

“I think I have the five votes,” Nutall said. “I do believe it’s going to pass without a problem.”

LGBT advocates have encouraged people in the community to contact their trustees and urge them to support a fully inclusive police. Contact info for trustees is listed on the DISD website.

—  John Wright