Photo by Lydia Chávez

Before the coronavirus pandemic pushed San Francisco public schools to shut down in mid-March, Jashlyn Canon’s 11-year-old son faced frequent bullying. The quiet, shy fifth grader experienced so much stress and anxiety that he would come home every day and nap for two hours before tackling homework. 

Canon’s son, who did not want his name published, has been bullied for about three years at Rosa Parks Elementary School’s Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program, she said. It’s a small school, and teachers there have split up the groups of bullies a few times, but it hasn’t really helped. 

 “He was ready to quit school,” Canon said. But switching to online learning, where he isn’t in the same classroom or on the same playground with his bullies, has made a huge difference. “He’s still anxious about it, but he has experienced a ton of relief now.”

While parents all over San Francisco (and all over the country) have scrambled to keep up with their day jobs while also monitoring their kids’ transition to distance learning, some parents of bullied kids – and the kids themselves – have discovered a silver lining. For the most part, teachers are better able to keep an eye on students during virtual class time, and that makes it harder for bullies to tease or harm their classmates. 

Nina Kaiser, who runs Practice San Francisco, a psychology and wellness center for kids and families in Cow Hollow, says she’s noticed similar relief among her clients. She works with families from across the city with children in San Francisco’s public and private schools. 

“The physical environment is a large piece of where bullying is happening,” Kaiser said. That’s especially true among kids in kindergarten through fifth grade, who generally aren’t on social media yet. “You can’t say backhanded things in an online classroom and get away with it. There’s not this unsupervised or less-supervised time on the playground.”

The shift to distance learning came not long after San Francisco Chronicle reporter Heather Knight was beginning to uncover rampant bullying at Aptos Middle School. Her reporting found that, although teachers and staff do what they can to curb hostile behavior between students, they’re often overwhelmed and under-supported. 

Before founding Practice SF, Kaiser worked in the University of California’s Psychiatry Department, where one of her roles was teaching San Francisco Unified School District counselors how to perform evidence-based interventions with bullying. 

“I think the district is trying,” Kaiser said. “But it’s really hard to supervise social interactions among kids, especially when kids are motivated to have things happen under the radar.” 

SFUSD spokeswoman Laura Dudnick said that when bullying happens, local schools work to “intervene and educate,” rather than punish students accused of causing harm. The aim is to change the behavior in kids who bully and let victims talk about the ways they’ve been hurt, she said. 

Canon’s son went through these intervention processes with some of his bullies, but it didn’t wind up changing anything, she said. “‘Restorative’ practices have just taught the bullies to fake an apology and re-offend, and kept authority figures from imposing consequences.”

Kaiser agreed that these approaches are “really nice in theory, but in practice, they can fail.” They also wind up sending a mixed message to victimized kids about whose responsibility it is to resolve the situation, and who’s looking out for them, she said. It can work well in situations where kids are equally responsible for inappropriate behavior, “but if one or more kids are victimizing another, that seems like a better space for administrative intervention.”

Although younger grades are experiencing relief from bullying, students in middle and high school may be experiencing as much or more, whether it’s on social media or in text messaging, Kaiser said.

SFUSD amps up its “social-emotional learning” programs in 6th through 12th grades, offering Second Step curriculum and Bounce Back support groups, Dudnick said. Those programs, along with lessons in digital citizenship and cyberbullying, have become even more important now that all learning is taking place online, she said. 

Canon is relieved to see her son relaxing into online school, and Kaiser says her younger clients vastly prefer online school. “Even if they don’t like the academic portion … they are delighted to be at home,” Kaiser said. ‘And being at home is more peaceful because there isn’t the opportunity for their classmates to say and do mean things.”

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Beth Winegarner

COPY EDITOR. Beth Winegarner is a Bay Area native who’s lived in San Francisco since 2004, and she’s in the Mission at least once a week. She’s written for local publications like the SF Weekly, San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco magazine, as well as the New Yorker, the Guardian, Wired, Mother Jones and others. Her favorite tacos and alambres come from El Farolito.

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  1. Thank you for writing the article!!!! A student and parent usually report these issues to the school administration. Restorative practices is a tool that won’t work if the administrative systemic issue within the school are not addressed. During these last few months teachers are seeing a decline in student behavior intereptions, they have smaller class sizes, communicate more directly with parents and gives students that are having difficulty with the school environments. The opportunity to begin their healing from the long term exposure of being in an unsafe environment that caused: stress, anxiety, inability to learn, lack of concentration, depression, worry, suicidal thoughts and possible PTSD triggers. There are many students suffering from PTDS and Anxiety disorders at schools that are not being tracked or reported. They are students who’s pain is generally dismissed by the schools administration which will have lasting long term effects that can reshape a student’s future negatively. I applaud all the parents who become advocates in these circumstances, it’s not easy at all. Thank you for not giving up!!!!

    1. The bullying problems in SFUSD are at epidemic proportions. They haven’t gone away completely even during distance learning. The problem really is that principals in SFUSD just want to move up in their careers and they don’t want to actually manage problems. If we could afford private school we would. If we could afford to move we would. SFUSD needs to be restructured but it never will. There are too many people who like the power they have.

  2. This if a good ref minder that estorative practices should not be about forcing bullies into fake apologies. Restorative practices put the victim in a place of power and require that the person inflicting harm come up with an authentic set of restorative actions that his/ her victim feel restore trust and leave the victim feeling whole while respecting the bully’s right to own their behavior and change it without punitive actions by administrators.