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The Making of a Bully-Free School

Educator Tina Owen-Moore speaks about the creation of the Alliance School in Milwaukee and strategies to combat bullying.
Tina Owen-Moore
Tina Owen-Moore
Photo: Jill Anderson

Educator Tina Owen-Moore, Ed.L.D.'19, was tired of seeing students' education compromised because bullying had made them feel unsafe. Because of this feeling, Owen-Moore found, many kids would stop showing up to school or even drop out. She knew that in order to get them back on track and focused on their academics, first she needed to eliminate the bullying.

“Everybody knew this was a problem, but most people’s reaction was ‘bullying has always been there. It’s always going to be there. There’s nothing we can do.’ I didn’t think that was true,” Owen-Moore says. “Just from my own experiences in the classroom I had learned, as an educator, there were things I could do intentionally to make the classroom more safe and inclusive for students and to change the relationship between students.”

In 2005, she co-founded and opened the Alliance School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — the first school with the mission of being bully-free. The unique high school focuses on creating a safe environment for children and adults through building relationships, understanding, and inclusivity. Her new book, The Alliance Way: The Making of a Bully-free School, tells the story of how her plan came to fruition.

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Owen-Moore discusses the book, reflects on the creation of the Alliance School, and offers strategies for educators and school leaders on making bully-free schools a reality.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard Edcast. 

Tina Owen-Moore was tired of students not showing up to school, or even worse, dropping out. The issue of bullying was so out of control in many cases that it was truly interfering with students' ability to even go to school. She knew in order to do anything we really needed to conquer bullying for kids and make school a safe space. 

Back in 2005, she co-created the Alliance School in Milwaukee. It's a unique high school that emphasizes fostering relationships, and understanding, and inclusivity. That focus has really made it bully-proof. Tina spoke about this need for a systemic approach to bullying and how there are so many things that educators can do to create an anti-bullying environment. 

I wanted to know more about why bullying is so hard to get a handle on, and what is the secret to the Alliance way. 

Tina Owen-Moore: Everybody knew that this was a problem. But most people's reaction was, bullying has always been there, it's always going to be there, there's nothing we can do. I didn't think that was true. Just from my own experiences in the classroom, I had learned as an educator that there were things I could do intentionally to make the classroom more safe and inclusive for students and to change the relationships between students. And so I felt like we could do this work. And we had to because I saw so many students dropping out or not coming to school anymore because school wasn't a place that felt safe or happy for them to be. 

Jill Anderson: And this was a while ago. I mean, 2004 was when you started the school? 

Tina Owen-Moore: 2005 was when we opened it. 

Jill Anderson: Oh. Opened it. What would you say if you had to summarize is the Alliance way? 

Tina Owen-Moore: I would say the Alliance way is to really focus on relationships as being the key thing that drives change in culture. Like we had a core belief at Alliance that says if you can see yourself in others, whom can you harm. So, everything we did as a school community was built to get people to know each other well, to get adults to know each other well, to get students to know each other well, to get adults and students to know each other well. So that people are less likely to cause harm. 

Jill Anderson: Can you talk a little bit about how you did that? 

Tina Owen-Moore: Yeah. So, if you think about classroom dynamics, so many times in classrooms students are seated in rows and facing the front, and there's very little interaction. You could go through a whole year and not know one story about the person who sat next to you in class. And so rather than just letting that be the case, we intentionally used group learning where we would build in opportunities to share stories, to make connections, to use games to get kids to know each other. Service learning was a big piece of what we did. So, our students were finding out what the needs of the community were and then working together in service of the community. So, they were both learning the stories of people they were working with and sharing their own, and through that, building connections and community. We used restorative practices also to build connections between people — not as a disciplinary practice first, but first to build connections. And then when needed, to repair harm. 

Jill Anderson: I find it so interesting that you created this school focused on relationships, and acceptance, and getting to really know people and identify parts of yourself that you can find in other people and that type of thing, and understanding, and that it was so successful in conquering bullying. I mean, there are a lot of elements that went into it beyond that. 

Tina Owen-Moore: Yeah. 

Jill Anderson: Does it take starting completely new schools to conquer bullying? Or are there ways we can do it in schools that already exist? 

Tina Owen-Moore: People have asked me a lot. Should we create more Alliance Schools? Is that what we need to do? And I've always said no. We need more schools to become more like the Alliance School because there really are practices that anybody can pick up. And that was a really big piece of writing the book, like these are things that we can do. And I think that people are hungry for that kind of relationship building — both adults, students. These are things that we can do. 

And I think people have to have the opportunity to experience that kind of connection. Perhaps it has to happen in teacher preparation programs, in professional development. There are ways we can start building these opportunities for people to have those experiences so that that starts to translate into the classroom and to build classrooms that become models for other people to learn from. 

Jill Anderson: Is there a simple thing that schools could do to address bullying that maybe they just don't do? Like it's so obvious they're not even doing it. 

Tina Owen-Moore: I think one of the simplest things when it comes to addressing bullying is just, do you have a procedure that you teach students for how to report it when they see it. I mean, most schools don't have any way of reporting it. There's no forms, there's no apps. Some people have used apps and things like that where students can report it, and it still gets investigated before anything happens. But there is a system, and it's taught to students from the very beginning, like if you see this happen, this is what you do. 

So, I think that's one of the things when you're addressing bullying. I think most of the work, though, has to happen in the prevention part of it, in building those relationships. So, that you may have harm happening, but it's never getting to that level of bullying because the community won't allow it. They know each other's stories, and they're not going to let something happen to somebody. 

Jill Anderson: So, maybe you can clarify what you mean when you're talking about the difference between harm and bullying. 

Tina Owen-Moore: Yeah, I think these are really important things to learn and distinguish too. So, we talked about harm happening because you can harm somebody without intention to harm someone. And it's still your responsibility to repair that harm. So we started from that. So, if I say something that hurts you, whether or not I intended it to, I want to make that right with you. So, if we start from there from the beginning, then we never get to a place of bullying. Because we're addressing the harm as it happens. We are handling it as a community. 

Bullying is the repeated pattern of using power to cause harm. And in most cases, it never has to get to that state. It's a shame if it gets to that state. Like we should be able to address things early and really protect the culture and prevent it. 

Jill Anderson: What type of systems to handle this? 

Tina Owen-Moore: So, there were so many things that we did as a school community. This is something that's going to be always changing as a school, like you're going to see things. You're going to see patterns and say, OK, we need to address something like that. So, some of the things we did was before the school year started, we had a couple of conference days where we taught students about bullying, conflict, the differences, what it looks like, what to do when you have issues. So, having those systems in place where students know what it is, know what the school's expectations are, and know how to report. 

And then teaching students about different groups, about different belief systems, like about culture, so that they have that understanding. And as different groups come in, reteaching. Like we had a large population of students with autism start coming to our school because students with autism have often experienced a lot of bullying. And so, as that community grew and our students didn't know what it meant for someone to have autism, we taught our whole school community about what is autism, what does that mean for this student, what does that mean for us so that they would be better able to be a good friend to someone with autism. 

And then there's other things, like the systems you create for teachers to report, the systems that you put in place for consequences. We had restorative justice for dealing with both conflict and for harm. So, there is a difference between conflict and bullying. Conflict has to do when two people are having an argument, like there's a disagreement and it's going back and forth. And so, the way you can deal with that is with both people in a circle or in mediation. When it's an actual incident of somebody causing harm using power, you never want to put that person in the same space as the person that they're causing harm to. Because that person can be re-injured. 

So, we had a peer justice council where that student would have to come before their peers for consequences in that case. So, having the systems in place for how to deal with each type of conflict, bullying situations that arise, is really important. 

Jill Anderson: When the school opened in 2005, social media, I have to guess, was not as central in kids' lives at that point. So, do you think that the explosion of social media has impacted bullying? And I'm wondering if it's changed things in your school. 

Tina Owen-Moore: Yeah. When we were starting the school, cyberbullying was just becoming a word. So when we were writing our proposal, it wasn't even a topic to address. And then by the time we opened, it was already quite an issue. I think that cyberbullying has changed it in some ways in that when bullying does happen, it happens faster and can be more intense individually and more damaging and dangerous in that way. But the problem is still the same and addressing it is still the same. 

I think one of the things schools struggle with is do we address it? Because this is something that happens outside of school. My belief as an educator and school leader was that if it impacts school, we have to address it. Because these people are in relationship in our school community. So, anything that happened in the world of social media we addressed as if it was at school. 

Jill Anderson: Hmm. And so that's your recommendation, would you say? Or is it to sort of instill the same systems and practices that you would have inside your school walls to outside? 

Tina Owen-Moore: Well, yeah. In some ways we saw social media as just a bigger classroom. And so, we taught our students how to respond if you see something on social media. You know, who do you contact? How do you take a picture of it and send it to somebody? How do you report it on social media so that it gets taken down? So, our students were so much in the practice of recognizing it that they knew that if five people report this on social media, the site will take it down. Whereas if it was just me as a school leader like, hey, this is up, you need to take it down, it would take a week or two. But if five students got on and reported it, it would get taken down. 

So, teaching young people to be active in the fight against it, to standing up and saying, this is not who we are, just like being an upstander in the school community, being an upstander in social media was just as important. 

Jill Anderson: If you can't get buy-in from all of your students, how can this work? 

Tina Owen-Moore: I think most people want to be in community with people who are kind. You know if you can trust somebody, you want to be around them. That's a common thing. And the other thing is when we started our school, we thought maybe we would be a community where it was people who were choosing to be there. But everybody came to our school. And we had extra seats at the beginning, so we just got assigned whoever still had a seat, or people who picked it because A was the first letter in the alphabet. And so, there were a lot of people who came to our school who maybe didn't believe in that vision. 

But we always had this belief that if this is going to work, it's going to work for everybody, like this truly is the way that's going to work for everybody. And so, we welcomed everybody in with that same acceptance, like this is a place for you too. Because everybody has experienced a time when they didn't feel welcome in a place. It was beautiful to see these people who were very different come together and find community. 

Jill Anderson: What would you say is something that has surprised you learning about bullying and culture at schools? 

Tina Owen-Moore: I think one of the things I'm seeing a lot of lately is that socioemotional learning is big in schools, and that's a really good thing. It's had a lot of positive impacts. And yet as I dig into data around youth risk behavior surveys and things, I'm not seeing the drop in bullying rates just in using those practices. And I'm thinking that has a lot to do with the fact that a lot of times the socioemotional learning is the work that we do with students. And the work that we have to do to address bullying is the work that we do around systems and creating the systems and the dynamics that make young people not want to bully. You know, it's not just knowing the definitions and the ways, it's about the system rewarding and taking care of people because this is our community. 

Jill Anderson: How hard is it to change school culture and climate? 

Tina Owen-Moore: I don't think it's as hard as people think. 

Jill Anderson: Really? 

Tina Owen-Moore: You can often feel when you walk into a place if the culture is struggling. And when you do, it often just takes a few compliments and conversations with people before it starts to shift. I had this principal teach me you got to give people six praises before they can hear a critique, right? If you walk into a space and you're just like, authentic praise for a little bit of time, you can feel that culture shift, whether that's adults, students, anybody. 

So, I think just some really thoughtful attention and knowing that you've got to feed people's souls and hearts in the space can change the culture really quickly. It's just often not the thing people think of as a lever for change. 

Jill Anderson: Fascinating stuff. Well, thank you so much, Tina, for coming in and talking today. 

Tina Owen-Moore: Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure. 

Jill Anderson: Tina Owen-Moore is the co-creator of the Alliance School in Milwaukee. She is the author of The Alliance Way: The Making of a Bully-Free School. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard Edcast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening. 


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