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Cedar Forest Elementary's proactive effort against bullying includes flying banners for days without reports of problems at school or on buses.
Third-graders at the Spotsylvania elementary school write down and discuss bullying scenarios and how
Cedar Forest students talk to teacher Christie Hall about the differences between simple conflict and bullying.
Teacher Christie Hall talks to third-graders at Cedar Forest Elementary about ways to prevent bullying.
By PAMELA GOULD
Third-graders in Christie Hall's class at Cedar Forest Elementary gathered in a circle on the floor on a recent Monday morning to begin their weekly anti-bullying meeting.
She passed around a can containing slips of paper with different scenarios for students to pull out and discuss.
Like what to do if someone drops a note on the floor and you see that it contains mean words about a classmate.
Or what to do if you're on the playground and notice one child standing off to the side alone.
Or what to do if you're standing in the cafeteria line and hear someone say one of your classmates is "dumb."
Hall's students knew appropriate responses to each scenario thanks to an anti-bullying program instituted at the Spotsylvania County elementary school in January.
Cedar Forest and Riverview elementary schools started using the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program last winter thanks to federal stimulus funds.
Every school in Spotsylvania addresses bullying to some degree, but Cedar Forest Principal David Strawn sought a program targeting the issue after reviewing responses from parents and students to a survey conducted in fall 2008.
"It was really a big concern in the community," Strawn said.
Bullying is a concern for schools nationwide, with such behavior leading to suicides and retaliation such as school shootings and other violence. A 2012 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in five high school students had been bullied on school property during 2011.
In addition, 22 percent of high school girls reported being the victim of cyber bullying either via emails, chat rooms, instant messaging, websites or texting, the report found. Boys reported cyber bullying at a lower level, with nearly 11 percent reporting it.
Strawn's hope is to attack the problem at the elementary level, with the hope that early education can prevent it at the upper levels.
"You just hope and pray they will carry it on when they go on to middle and high school," he said.
His staff researched the issue and realized an approach was needed to first educate students and staff about what bullying is and isn't.
"Children need to understand the difference between bullying and conflict," Strawn said. "Just because you don't get your way doesn't mean it was bullying."
Bullying, according to the Olweus definition, "is when someone repeatedly and on purpose says or does mean or hurtful things to another person who has a hard time defending himself or herself."
Examples can include gossiping, mean teasing, or excluding someone. Or it can take a physical form such as hitting, intimidating or taking another person's property.
And today, as tragic examples have shown nationwide, bullying also happens via technology.
The potentially severe consequences of bullying led Strawn to take a proactive approach.
"I thought, I don't want this to happen at my school," he said. "I need to try to stop this from happening."
REMOVING THE POWER
Cedar Forest and Riverview begin each week with meetings in every classroom that last 30 minutes or less. Those gatherings allow time to address anything that occurred during the weekend and set the tone for the week's instruction.
The goal is to educate through open communication and concrete examples of appropriate behavior, said Strawn and Riverview Principal Dianne Holmes.
For example, if a child is off to himself on the playground or at the lunch table, that's a signal for others to reach out and urge him to "huddle up," as a boy in Hall's class pointed out during a meeting last month.
The Olweus program identifies three roles that can come into play in bullying--the bully, the victim and the bystander--and shows students how to respond in each role.
Bullying--which Strawn and Holmes discovered happens most often in the cafeteria, on a school bus or on the playground--should be reported by the victim or any observer, adult or child. Forms are available in the schools for that purpose.
Students also are taught to tell an adult at school and at home about bullying they observe or receive.
And bystanders are taught constructive ways to address bullying they see. When a note with mean words in it is found on the floor, it should be snatched up because it could hurt someone's feelings, said a girl in Hall's class.
"I would tell the person not to pass notes any more because they can start rumors," another girl said.
"And rumors are hurtful," Hall reminded the students.
She asked them what they would do if they heard someone call a classmate a mean name like "dumb."
"I wouldn't laugh," one girl said. "I would just say: Please stop. That's not nice."
"Is it OK to stand up to somebody and tell them, what you just said is wrong?" Hall asked.
"Yes," the students answered in unison.
Peers often carry more weight with a bully than a teacher or another adult, Hall told the third-graders.
"Sometimes, teachers can tell them you shouldn't do that, you shouldn't say that and teachers repeat themselves over and over again," she said. "But when you guys as the bystander stand up and tell someone who's bullying that is wrong, they're going to stop and listen because then you've just taken their power away."
A CLIMATE FOR LEARNING
With all of the pressure teachers are under for students to achieve, using a half hour of every week for anti-bullying instruction could have been met with resistance. But by taking time to get staff on board before implementing the program, Strawn said everyone is seeing benefits.
"Teachers will tell you their classes are more united so they're actually getting that instructional time back," he said.
And at Riverview, the program has helped staff and students interact better, Holmes said.
She and Strawn said a school's atmosphere is critical to learning.
Holmes started a character-building program at Riverview years ago and said the Olweus program is a great addition to achieving her goal of creating a sense of family at her school.
She said the key to the anti-bullying effort is teaching children how to have open, honest communication to constructively address situations with their peers.
And while punishment can become part of the equation, suspending children for bad behavior won't solve a bullying problem, Holmes said. Those students need help dealing with underlying issues, which is a critical piece of the process.
Strawn and Holmes recognize that bullying is a societal problem, which is why they are reaching out to parents and the broader community.
They held a festival at Massaponax High School last month to increase awareness.
The principals know better awareness of bullying may initially result in a spike in reports, but they're hopeful it will produce long-term benefits.
"It may not ever go away, but we'll have kids who are better able to cope with it than if you never would have addressed it," Strawn said.
And both principals think the investment of time and energy in confronting the problem will produce results in the classroom.
"School needs to be fun," Strawn said.
Making it a place where everyone feels safe and connected to their classmates and teachers should boost academic success.
"I don't think you can have a conversation about improving your academics without talking about your school climate," Strawn said.
But he cautioned against getting too optimistic too fast.
"Just because this program is in place doesn't mean we've solved it," he said.
Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972
1. We will not bully others.2. We will try to help students who are bullied. 3. We will try to include students who are left out. 4. If we know that somebody is being bullied, we will tell an adult at school and at home.
--Olweus Bullying Prevention
No more bullying at our school.
It isn't nice and it isn't cool.
Every school has a right to be
safe and fun and bully-free!