Tennessee Tech University will host its second annual Bully-Free Tennessee Conference from Jan. 20-22, an event that addresses the serious issue of bullying in public schools.

Organizers are partnering with GLSEN Middle Tennessee (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) and the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network to provide education and insight on how to create safe school environments.

Registration is $25 for the general public, $10 for college students not attending TTU, and free for all TTU students and middle and high school students in Tennessee. General volunteers are currently needed to assist during the conference.

In an email Q&A with Out & About Newspaper, coordinator Justin Sweatman acknowledges the challenges of this mission and encourages all Tennesseans to get involved in this cause.

What are one or two main goals you hope to achieve through this conference? How do you encourage both parents and educational professionals to address bullying?

Students who feel endangered in schools don’t succeed. It’s that simple. Ultimately our goal is to change the social norms in schools to provide a nurturing learning environment. We plan to address this in three ways:

1) Empowering individuals—This includes educating students, parents, teachers, and other stakeholders in the education of youth on evidence-based strategies of how to prevent and intervene in bullying situations and driving home the idea that just talking about it isn’t enough and that action is required to create change.

2) Building resiliency—That means providing a support system for youth, particularly victims of bullying and making the student aware that there are more people with you than against you.

3) Strengthening communities—We’ve all heard the old adage “It takes a village to raise a child.” It’s so true. More people are invested in the education of each child than just the parents and teachers. It’s the responsibility of EVERY member of a community to play an active role in creating a safe learning environment. A unique feature of this conference will be educating participants on strategic planning for an action plan, which will include how to bring a community together in support of addressing an issue.

What do you see as the biggest challenges to making sure bullying is stricken from school and that policies are put in place to prohibit bullying from occurring?

The biggest challenges to making sure bullying is stricken from school is coming up with an effective system of not only identifying earlier on that the bullying is occurring, but how to handle the situation without making it worse. That is one reason I am particularly excited about the U.S. Department of Justice's decision to host a "Student Conflict Resolution Team Training" at the conference! It should help provide the participants with tools that they could use to help defuse situations before they can get terribly out of hand. The policy hurdles are threefold:

1) General anti-bullying bullying rules need to be put in place and enforced.

2) Faculty and staff need to be better equipped to handle the different extremes of bullying.

3) Issues that may make one group of students inherently unequal need to be dealt with, this includes things such as not allowing some students to form GSAs (Gay Straight Alliances) on their campus and a of competency and awareness for cultural differences.

How does the recent news of an Ashland City teen committing suicide in part because of school bullying make this a vital time to present this conference?

We started planning the conference well before the horrific news became public. The events in Ashland City underscore the dire importance and urgency of
addressing these issues here at home. Problems don’t stop at state lines. This is not just a California or New York issue. This is a Tennessee issue. All of our thoughts and prayers go out to the victim's family.

Anyone interested in helping or needing more information may email stop.bullying.in.tennessee@gmail.com, visit www.facebook.com/TNBullyingConference, or call Sweatman at 931-704-8814.

This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

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