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.”