New program aims to curtail bullying in schools

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JANET HAMOUS
Teasing, name-calling, gossiping and other behavior that might have formerly been considered “just part of growing up” now has a new name-bullying-and schools are serious about stopping it.

“Bullying has always been going on, but it was never called that,” said Sandy Berg, a licensed professional counselor with Prairie View in Marion. “We didn’t really recognize it for what it was. Now we’re saying, hey, this is a big problem.”

Incidents of school violence have prompted schools across the country to take a closer look at the issue.

“Because of some of the things making national news like Columbine, kids are becoming more and more aggressive in retaliating,” Berg said. “Kids are dying and kids are committing suicide.”

While bullying may be a lesser concern here in Marion County than in many parts of the country, it is still a problem that cannot be ignored, Berg said.

“We probably don’t see the intensity, but we’ve had kids in Marion County who have taken weapons to school because they’re being picked on,” she said. “It does happen. It just doesn’t happen as often.”

An incident in Peabody last December heightened community awareness of the issue there when an exchange student from Peru returned to his home country after being a victim of bullying by other students at Peabody-Burns High School (PBHS).

“Usually, bullying involves maybe one or two kids, but that’s one or two kids too many,” said Berg. “We want kids to feel safe at school-emotionally and physically.”

In response, school districts throughout the country are taking action to “bully-proof” their schools.

Grant Support

Through a five-year Drug Free Community Support grant, school districts in Marion County have the opportunity to implement a program called Bully-Proofing Your School.

Prairie View provides consulting services for the grant and works closely with the schools implementing the program, Berg said.

Marla Bonds and Sally Stoker out of the school district in Cherry Creek, Colo., developed the program. It is currently being tested “to be a blueprint program for violence prevention,” Berg said.

“It’s a very comprehensive program and is working in schools where they are applying it,” she said.

The program not only addresses students identified as bullies and victims but also staff, parents and other students who are caught in the middle between the bully and the victim.

“They suggest you get everyone involved in it-the whole community,” Berg said. “It’s not just a punitive measure where the kids are brought into the office; it calls for changing the climate of your school.”

Peabody-Burns first to start

Peabody-Burns USD 398 is the first school district in the county to implement the bully-proofing program, Berg said.

PBHS Principal Mary Brown said the district adopted the program last fall when a new staff member hired to work with the district’s alternative action program observed that some of the students involved in an after-school program for suspended students exhibited bullying-like behaviors.

Brown looked into resources and learned about the bully-proofing program being used by Prairie View at other area middle schools and high schools.

“All the research says this is a very valuable program,” Brown said. “It has worked at many schools throughout the United States.”

The Peabody program kicked off with a questionnaire to assess the perceptions of high school and junior high staff, parents and students. The survey results will be used as a baseline for comparison once the bully-proofing program has been implemented.

Staff training

In a half-day in-service held in January, staff learned the definitions of bullying, the different types of victims and the role of bystanders.

“We went over the survey that the teachers took to see how safe they felt and whether they saw bullying and how they handled it,” Brown said. “I think the most amazing thing that came from it was the realization of the different types of behaviors that are actually bullying.

“Like making fun of someone’s clothes-the social bullying that goes on. They’re behaviors you see on a daily basis that you never really considered bullying. Bullying traditionally has been somebody that was being picked on or being harassed. It’s much more broad than that.”

The definition of bullying not only includes physical aggression but also verbal aggression, intimidation, racial and ethnic harassment and sexual harassment.

“With girls, their bullying is more relational-it’s about excluding, gossiping, ignoring. It’s the social aspects of a relationship that they use,” Berg said. “Guys are more overt.”

Bullies come in all forms, Berg said. They can be boys or girls, individuals or groups. But what is always true is that there is an imbalance of power with one person or group repeatedly victimizing another individual or group.

Bullying behaviors are often carefully shielded from adults, she added, so teachers must learn to spot the clues that indicate a problem.

“It’s the note-passing and the excluding that are more subtle and harder to catch,” Berg said. “It’s also things that take place where kids know there’s not a lot of adult supervision. Most of it happens in hallways, locker rooms and bathrooms.”

At the training program, teachers also learned to distinguish between normal conflict and bullying. Berg said a key difference is repetition of the behavior. A one-time occurrence may be nothing to be alarmed about, but if a pattern develops, it is cause for concern.

When bullying is suspected or reported to a teacher, the situation should not be written off as normal adolescent behavior, she said.

“When kids come to them and say something, teachers need to follow up with it,” Berg said.

The burden of taking action doesn’t rest solely on the teachers’ shoulders though, she said. Bystanders who observe the behavior also play a critical role in stopping the bully.

“Usually, bullies are individuals or small groups, so it takes the other kids standing up to them and saying, ‘You know this isn’t right’ to take the power away from the bullies-that’s the key,” Berg said. “What you try to do is create a community that cares about each other and you take that power away from the person.”

Student training

Educating students about bullying, sensitizing them to what it feels like to be bullied and giving them the tools to speak up when they see it happening are all part of the training recently begun at Peabody-Burns Junior High.

“We decided that we would target middle school because we’re going to have those kids the longest and we wanted to change the climate of the seventh and eighth grade,” Brown said.

Berg agreed that middle school is the place to focus because bullying is worst in the fifth through eighth grades.

“The hope is that if you start these programs early enough, you won’t need them by the time they get to high school,” she said. “Usually bullying tapers off about sophomore year.”

The bully-proofing program was incorporated into the students’ physical education class and will continue through the remainder of the school year, Brown said.

“We decided it would be best if they did it during PE because the boys and girls are separated, and they’re separated by grade level. So it just makes it easier to facilitate working with those groups,” she said.

Berg said the curriculum is a combination of experiential learning and book learning.

“We try to do some creative things with the kids that really give them the experience of what they learn,” she said. “One of the activities the girls did was a game called ‘backstabbers.'”

In the game, each person is given three clothespins they must try to pin on others.

“You’re supposed to get rid of your clothespins and not get any more put on you-you have team members who help you out,” Berg said. “What we find is that some people get ganged up on. And we talk about that. How did that feel? What was that like for you? It’s a really powerful experience for the kids.”

Berg said the training also helps students learn techniques for handling situations where they are bullied or a peer is bullied.

“We talk about strategies you can use to get out of a situation, how to do some creative problem solving, and steps to take if things aren’t being resolved,” she said. “Kids need to know how to respectfully confront a person.”

Brown added: “We want those who have not voiced their concerns or have just stood by and watched it happen to take control of the situation. Ultimately that’s what the program’s about-empowering those students who know the difference between right and wrong but don’t do anything about it.”

The training is also designed to get the potential bully to channel his or her energy in more positive directions.

“What kids want to do-which is not unlike adults-is they want to control somebody else’s behavior,” Brown said. “We try to teach them that you just can’t do that-it’s not going to work.”

Berg said: “Some kids need that power in their lives to keep functioning. What we hope to do is teach them other ways to gain that control and power.”

Long-term commitment

Brown said the school district’s commitment to the program is long term.

“This is going to be ongoing,” she said. “It’s not going to be something we’re going to start and then just stop.

“I think it’s something everybody wants to know how to deal with. You don’t want your kid bullied and you don’t want your kid bullying anybody either. Because bullies grow up to be bullies.”

Berg said: “The whole crux of this curriculum is developing a different kind of climate in the school where people want to help others. When you have kids who feel good at being at school and feel good about the people that they’re with, that carries over into all the other areas of their life-it carries over into grades, it carries over into relationships, it carries over into the community. It’s just a win-win situation for everybody.”

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