In Newark, New Jersey, a high school principal named Akbar Cook came up with an unexpected strategy to combat bullying and student absences. Cook’s answer was a laundry room on campus. The principal realized that high school students were missing days of school due to bullying for dirty clothes, and installed five commercial grade washer and dryers in an empty locker room. The laundry room is available to students for free after school three days a week, from 3 to 6 pm.
Jamila Hammond, a social worker for the high school, said that the washer and dryer are going to have a positive impact on the community, according to CBS News. “Many times the students may come in because they’re embarrassed, they don’t look the same, somebody’s complaining about a body odor,” Hammond told the station. “I would say, ‘OK, baby, then we’re going to have to do it the old way. We have soap, we have water,’ but now with this laundry room, we don’t have to do that.”
Students also reiterated the importance of the effort. A student named Nassir reported that students were bullied for “how they smelled and how their clothes looked dirty”. Principal Cook noted that one student was trying to prevent security from checking in her bag because she didn’t want anyone to find out she was homeless and did not have a way to clean her clothes. By putting a laundry room in the school, safety was improved for the entire building.
Protecting Vulnerable Students From Bullying
The bullying at West Side High School in Newark is not uncommon In many cases, bullying is more complicated than animosity among students. It often relates to financial hardship, and it’s important for schools to address the ways teachers or other administrators may be perpetuating stigma. One of the most common ways that schools accidentally perpetuate a culture of bullying is through lunch shaming tactics. The American Bar Association defines lunch shaming as the stigmatization of a student who cannot afford lunch. This includes instances where schools mark or stamp a child with phrases such as “I Need Money”, providing a student with a different or inferior lunch, and even forcing a student to perform manual labor in exchange for food.
The purpose of lunch shaming is to embarrass a student or parent into paying the school lunch debt quickly, and reduce the financial cost for schools. It therefore forces the student to take on the burden of resource and budget shortages, and the practice has been largely condemned. It’s clear that lunch shaming has a detrimental effect on students, including an increase in incidents of bullying. In Michigan, one of the most noteworthy cases of lunch shaming occurred when the administration threw a student’s food in the trash in front of peers.
New Mexico was the first state to pass significant anti-lunch shaming legislation. The Hunger Free Students Bill of Rights ensures that no student is denied food based on their income or lunch account status, and prevents schools from participating in lunch shaming tactics. The legislature ensures that schools must serve food to students no matter what, and cannot throw away a meal after it has been served to a student. It also makes sure that schools cannot identify or call out students who can’t afford lunch with stickers, hand-stamps, or by forcing them to do manual labor.
One of the most significant aspects of the new law is outreach to students with a record of coming to school lunchless. This program is one that schools in districts with no anti-lunch shaming legislation can turn to when looking to tackle bullying on campus. If the school social worker or guidance counselor reaches out to a student’s family when a student has not been able to pay for five or more meals, it can better educate the community about free or reduced lunch programs available.
The community can also come together to make sure the student lunch debt is paid off for the school. While these practices are hurtful to students and can encourage bullying, the problem is often coming from the school being in a difficult financial position. Even if the community is unable to give, awareness about lunch debt can be equally valuable. Many people do not realize that this is an issue, and would be willing to help.
Leveraging Technology to Support Anti-Bullying Efforts
Across the United States, schools are finding innovative ways to bolster student resources and prevent bullying. The efforts include increasing faculty awareness of the way financial hardship can make a student more vulnerable to bullying, and trying to address these concerns in any way possible. In New Jersey, the practice of having washer and dryers on campus or providing healthy meals for the whole student body, regardless of financial status, can have a positive impact on the community. In order for parents and students to take advantage of these resources, they have to know they exist.
An anonymous two-way tip texting system can be valuable for schools looking to prevent bullying against low-income students. The societal stigma against financial struggle may make students hesitant to come forward with incidents of bullying. It’s important that schools take a proactive stance against this behavior, and allow students to report any concerns that arise in a safe, anonymous space. The tool is just one of the ways schools can leverage technology to better address student safety, especially for those who may be most vulnerable to bullying or other harmful behavior.
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