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Climate Control: Molly Gosline, Ed.M.'04

When she accepted a position working as an elementary school guidance counselor a few years ago, Molly Gosline, Ed.M.'04, had not expected bullying to be one of the most pervasive issues at school.

But, she says, "It was a huge issue in school and I began to see how much it impacted school learning. It surprised me that it took so much of my guidance time. When I talked to teachers, there was also a lot of time being spent on bullying issues in other learning communities in the school, and [I learned] that it affected students' learning -- it was taking away from learning, standards, and creative time."

Although bullying has often been considered a childhood rite of passage, the bullying of today isn't the same as yesteryear, in part because of new technology. Gosline explains that instead of a mean note being passed around school or a student simply being excluded by other students, an email can easily be sent to a thousand kids in an instant or gossip can make its way around faster because of texting. "Bullying has taken on a different form because our society is different -- it's a faster environment than when we were growing up," she says.

She witnessed dozens of children unable to focus in class and heard from parents about the toll it was taking on their children. "Some kids could hold it together in school but then would go home and cry for hours," Gosline says. "Meanwhile, other kids would fall apart in class. It's proven to be a difficult issue to monitor, on top of which there was no good data focused on school climate."

When Gosline went online looking for answers to the problem, there just wasn't much information out there, particularly about using a whole school model approach to bullying. So, Gosline decided to develop that approach on her own. To do this, she utilized her own expertise in youth development and educational psychology, while building collaborations with colleagues with strong backgrounds in research, best practice, and policy on national levels.

Today, as founder and owner of School Climate Consulting Services, Gosline provides guidance to schools interested in achieving academic success through respectful teaching and improved school climate. She provides workshops on tough issues like cyberbullying and suicide prevention that face many educators and children through comprehensive and effective school climate research, assessment tools and services, and professional development opportunities with leading experts.

Gosline describes her role as providing schools a "mirror to their world." "I'm giving them tools to help see what is working, but also to see the gaps," she says.

Finding these gaps in schools can be tricky, especially since adults and children have completely different perspectives of what's happening on campus. Harrassment -- even more public instances than cyberbullying -- can go unnoticed, so fostering communication between a school's staff and its students is essential to Gosline's work. For example, at one New Hampshire school, teachers were unaware of problems during recess because they didn't actually see students causing trouble. However, when the students were asked about bullying, it became evident that teachers, who often stood on the sidelines at recess, were unable to see the bullying that took place behind a snow bank. Gosline noted that, in this particular school, the data resulted in a very simple solution -- devised by students and teachers together -- for teachers to make more effort to spread themselves out so that they can clearly observe all students' actions.

"I like being in the position where I can create opportunities for schools to decide what they can do to improve school climate," she says. "I'm definitely an advocate of collaboration as a key to success - one model of assessment or best-practice strategy does not fit with all schools. I like to use the analogy of a toolbelt when I work with educators; one tool cannot build a safe and supportive school environment. Rather, in my work, I strive to fill educator's toolbelts with a variety of tools they can use for different issues to help find solutions."

In recent years, bullying has gained attention in the media as many children and young adults who hurt others or hurt themselves blame bullying for the behaviors. A recent case in South Hadley, Mass., saw Phoebe Prince, 15, commit suicide after allegedly being bullied by several classmates, who were criminally charged. Also, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate secretly filmed and broadcast on the internet a private encounter between Clementi and another student. These cases, among others, sparked national debate regarding schools' responsibility to deal with bullying problems.

Today schools are faced with the task of transitioning their policies to address student safety issues in the context of school climate like cyberbullying and sexting. "A lot of schools created effective school safety policies after the tragedy at Columbine - which was necessary," Gosline says. "However, although critical for students' safety, those policies are more [about] coordinated emergency preparedness and responses than anything else." More work must be done, however, since some states, including Massachusetts, have recently mandated that schools incorporate official bullying policies.

Under the federal government's School Climate and Culture Initiative, states will soon be able to apply for access to $48 million to aid work on school climate. Gosline stresses how approximately 30 states will receive some of the funding and encourages educators to begin thinking creatively about applying for that money. And if they don't apply, or don't receive that funding, they should be thinking about how they can still make strides towards creating and maintaining positive school climates. One change schools can readily - and inexpensively - make is to update their own school safety policies to include bullying and cyberbullying and align it with current state law.

"It's not like you can just say, 'We are bully free school' with a poster and it solves the problem," Gosline says. "Like any law -- it has to have good policy to monitor and follow up with it. Just because we have a law doesn't mean bullying is going to stop."

Gosline sees part of her job as helping schools figure out how to implement policies.

"You don't need to spend a lot of money on antibullying programs," she says. "There is a lot of information out there to help schools in setting up a curriculum and improving school climate and I'm happy to show them the way."