Saugus Union School District Superintendent Colleen Hawkins shared a series of earnest conversations she had with local fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders in a board presentation that drew praise from board members who appreciated the dialogue they considered important.
“Our Children and the Words Around Them” presented discussions Hawkins had with students last spring inspired by some introspection she had on her morning commute from the east side of the Santa Clarita Valley to the west-side district office, she said.
It wasn’t about responding to a specific campus incident, she said, but more what she was seeing going on in news reports in districts throughout the region.
She cited one news report about a racial slur left on Post-It notes for students to see in an elementary school district outside the area. It was also around the time there were local conversations about an incident with Valencia High School students sharing footage of themselves on social media singing a racial slur.
“We’ve all been dealing with social media in the variety of ways that that goes through,” Hawkins said, noting the challenges being discussed are bigger than SUSD and the SCV, and at least national in scope.
“I just kept thinking, ‘This is not something that there but for the grace goes Saugus,’ — we could easily be one of these districts,” she added.
In discussing the rationale for the listening sessions, Hawkins also shared data the district collected that indicated students felt slightly less safe with respect to bullying than they had the previous year.
“Just seeing that and hearing that, you have to wonder why,” Hawkins said, adding that she also told the board she shared with students that she knew they weren’t actively being taught bullying behavior by their parents or their teachers, “and yet we’re all living with this situation.”
Hawkins visited all 15 campuses in the spring, speaking with about a dozen “student leaders” at each site, in small groups, without a formal structure and utilizing anonymous Post-it notes for more sensitive questions. For each campus, the principal was the note-taker for the exercise, which was also an opportunity for them to receive information about their campus.
Hawkins noticed there were commonalities and differences at each site, she said.
“They were fairly common from school to school but they were also very unique,” she said.
Hawkins started the conversations by showing pictures of animals staged in unique and unusual ways, and asking the students how it might feel to be those animals.
She also collected data and shared a word cloud on some of the most common hurtful words that students shared as what they were hearing on the playground, based on collecting hundreds of Post-it’s from students, with the size of the words indicating how often they showed up on the notes.
Hawkins said she debated on presenting the word cloud uncensored at the board meeting, and after consulting with members of the board, she decided the actual words provided much more impact.
“It’s really important to understand that our kids are hearing these worlds all the time,” Hawkins said, adding even if they’re not using the words in front of adults, “the constant assault on them is real,” she said, adding the concept of a verbal assault is one of the concepts that really sticks with her, considering the audience hearing that kind of language on the playground could be as young as 6 or 7.
She also talked about how the children isolate themselves on the yard as ways to separate themselves from their supervision, which gives them opportunities to hold “roasts” or “put-down battles” where the kids compete to see who can come up with the meanest insult.
There was also discussion of an “N-word” card, which the most popular kids — regardless of race — could hand out on the play yard, which meant, “‘I can give it to you, and you can use the N-word’ … ‘and so whoever you used it with, you couldn’t get mad at,’” Hawkins said, relaying the explanation she was given when she inquired about it.
She also shared how students had no answers for her follow-up questions regarding the “card,” such as how would one know and feel if someone’s feelings are getting hurt by the words.
One of the primary ways that children hear the words are through their older siblings and cousins, she said, with friends at school and YouTube rounding out the top of the list from students.
She noted that YouTube suggested viewings can pull them into a “rabbit hole” of viewing that can be harmful if unregulated — and it’s also one of the ways they can access what’s being said on social media, as most aren’t allowed to have their own accounts for sites like Twitter and Instagram, Hawkins said.
The presentation also discussed ways that parents, staff and teachers can handle such situations differently, which brought up a lot of interesting questions, such as the challenge of handling an anonymous report versus the need to know which students to talk to, in certain bullying situations. There was also a discussion of anonymous reporting and creating more structured play time.
Board member Anna Griese thanked Hawkins for the presentation, adding that she has a child in the upper grades and hears about incidents like the ones being discussed on a daily basis, she said.
“I can attest to that, I can attest to specific examples, and I think as a parent, we’re all naive sometimes to the language that’s being used,” Griese said, “but I do appreciate you taking the time to do that. I think that’s the kind of transparency the community wants and that we need.”
She added that she looked forward to seeing the progression and hopefully an improvement in some of the district’s data regarding student connectivity.
“It’s really a scary thing, I know, to confront such a huge issue, and to put all of the words on the slide,” board member Cassandra Love said, referring to the word cloud Hawkins shared. “I’m glad we’re brave enough to confront the issue and try to work on it to make it better.”
Board member Chris Trunkey said it was something the district planned to continue to work on with its advisory council and future discussion.
Board member Matthew Watson also appreciated the talk, adding that it’s easy to forget or underestimate what children are capable of sometimes, as well as their cognitive ability.
He also recalled how it brought up the memories of bullying he experienced when he was a kid. He said he at least had the solace of knowing at 3 p.m. he could go home after a bad day and ignore the bullying, which has become much more difficult for children during the digital age, which everyone seemed to acknowledge.
“They know and understand so much more than we often give them credit for,” Watson said to Hawkins, “and I think you saw that as the result of your listening sessions.”