The solution to the latest bullying headlines? Forget legislation: It's time to Start Empathy.

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Source: Ashoka

Earlier this week, reports surfaced about an 11-year-old boy with autism, who was beaten up by a fellow student while waiting at the bus stop. The event was filmed on a student’s cell phone, as his peers egged on his attacker, and subsequently uploaded to Facebook. 

It later emerged that Kaleb Kula, the victim of the assault, had endured similar taunts beginning in the 1st grade, and his parents had repeatedly contacted the administration expressing their concern. 

On the surface, the school had followed procedure, obeying the letter of the law. Maryland’s Cecil County Public School District upholds a strict anti-bullying policy, and maintains an online form where parents, peers, teachers, and other witnesses are encouraged to report incidents of bullying. 

The form is in keeping with the Safe Schools Reporting Act of 2005, and a host of awareness-raising measures since, ranging from Bullying Awareness Week to enhanced legislation to high-profile media coverage.  The result has led to a dramatic increase in the number of incidents reported throughout the state, reaching 3,800 incidents in 2009-2010: nearly double that from the previous year. 

Yet as Kaleb’s story shows, reporting incidents and dolling out reprimands only goes so far. Charging the student who attacked Kaleb with second-degree assault and laying blame on the district—which has called together parents to discuss bullying in wake of the incident—will not fix the problem. What’s needed is a concerted effort to address the issue at its root: equipping students with the ability to stand up when they see peers being mistreated and to avoid conflict in the first place.

Rather than attempt a new anti-violence initiative, Ashoka Fellow Eric Dawson Peace First has set out to build safe and effective school climates, by equipping students as peacemakers, and providing educators with the critical skills and knowledge to integrate social-emotional learning into the school’s curriculum and culture. Eric realized that today’s young people are living in a destructive cycle of violence: 3 out of 4 kids report being bullied, 160,000 students fear going to school each day, and by the 6th grade, the average child has seen 100,000 acts of violence on television. 

What was needed was an approach that armed students as changemakers: one that enabled students to feel and act on empathy for one another and those surrounding them, giving them, as Eric puts it, “the belief that they can effect change in their proximal world—that they can reverse the cycle.” 

Eric’s approach is two-fold: for one hour each week, all students—from Pre-K to 5th grade—hone their skills as peacemakers through weekly lessons focused on conflict resolution and civic engagement through real-life problem-solving and service learning. Students learn to resolve conflicts, help one another, and make tangible change in their school and community. In addition, Peace First  works with teachers and staff to develop a set of rituals and practices that celebrate peacemaking, helping them to create a more emotionally safe and supportive culture, grounded in a positive set of behavior norms. 

The approach is working.  Participating schools have seen a 60% reduction in violence, and a 70-80% increase in positive behavior: in instances of children breaking up fights, including others and helping one another. Ninety-five percent of students said that they understand how other people feel, and 84% said that they want to come to school more as a result of Peace First. 

Eric is not alone. Scattered across the country are education innovators and individual teachers and principals who have realized that the cure to bullying—and indeed, the ability of teachers to teach and students to learn—depends on cultivating empathy in students and in the adults who surround them.