Ugly stories about harassment, intimidation and bullying have been in the news nearly every day for more than two months now. The stories are alarming – yet they need to be told to pull back the curtain on a very big problem and to begin to address the problem.

These stories, along with the remarkable #MeToo social media campaign, have increased awareness and provided a platform for change. Now, we need a commitment to education and prevention for the future.

As a parent, grandparent and 30-year classroom teacher, I know that adults modeling respectful behavior for children is key to this education. The best time to start is when children are young.

Nebraska teachers work hard to create respectful, welcoming classrooms and a school culture in which all students feel safe and valued, and where they respect themselves and each other. Even with these efforts, the reality is that incidents of harassment and bullying persist in our schools.

This past fall, Nebraskans witnessed the harassment of an entire group of students: incidents at school-sponsored athletic events in which some students used racist taunts against largely minority-populated schools.

As president of the 28,000-member Nebraska State Education Association, I want to reaffirm NSEA’s belief that it is the responsibility of every school district and every educator to maintain a safe and supportive school environment and to prevent and protect students against harassment, intimidation, and bullying.

The national spotlight on harassment does provide us with an opportunity for education. As we are learning, this is not a small problem. One of every five teenagers report they have experienced bullying.

Every day there are more school absences due to bullying than any other issue or illness. And as a teacher, I can attest to the fact that bullying can affect a pupil’s learning and lead to mental health problems. It can also affect students well into their adult life.

As we’ve learned, bullying and harassment doesn’t happen only at school. School staff can do a great deal to prevent bullying and protect students, but we can’t do it alone. Parents and youth also have a role to play in preventing bullying.

Community members can use their unique strengths and skills to prevent bullying wherever it occurs. Hearing anti-bullying messages from the different adults in students’ lives can reinforce the message for kids that bullying is unacceptable.

Having conversations with children about harassment and bullying behavior is not a one-time event – it must be an ongoing dialogue. We must continue to talk about the issue. Doing so can support the transition from being passive bystanders to being allies who serve as powerful role models for others.

Jenni Benson is the president of the Nebraska State Education Association and a 30-year teacher. The Nebraska State Education Association represents 28,000 public school teachers and other educational professionals across Nebraska.

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