Bullying goes beyond the classroom

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OCEAN CITY — Last January, Gov. Chris Christie signed the toughest anti-bullying law in the country. The legislation has far-reaching ramifications; school districts across the state are now charged with establishing a district-wide program to deal with bullying issues in school buildings, but they are finding that the issue spreads to the home and extra-curricular activities, as well.

At a mandatory training session at the district’s three schools last week, faculty and staff members learned that harassment, intimidation and bullying, also referred to as HIB, is serious business.

The legislation requires new layers of bureaucracy and administrative tasks for school districts.

Primary School Principal Joann Walls said staff members must be vigilant.

“We’re all in this together,” she said.

Even the smallest incidents can mushroom into something that could be considered HIB. Students, she said, are very fearful of being teased. The emphasis should be on prevention. Any HIB violation, she noted, has to be reported.

“We were told we need to dig deep,” she said, adding that schools need to prove what steps they have taken and will take to prevent HIB so it does not occur again.

Teachers could be at the door greeting students when an HIB incident occurs in the classroom, out of the teacher’s sight and hearing range. Parents can challenge violation; if a student is charged with a HIB violation, it goes on their record and the information is sent to the state.

To comply with the requisite high standards of the “Anti-bullying Bill of Rights,” the district is utilizing the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.

The school district’s anti-bullying rules will be posted throughout the district:

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 someone is being bullied we will tell an adult at school and an adult at home.

 

Staff members worked with Olweus training officials and some faculty members from the Sea Isle City School District to demonstrate the “bullying circle.”

In a role playing exercise, Primary School physical education teacher Trish LeFever played the role of the victim.

There were bullies, including the leader, who started the bullying; followers, who took an active part; supporters, who did not take part; passive supporters, who did not display open support; defenders of the victim, who try to help; and possible defenders, who think they should help, but don’t.

The bully made fun of LeFever’s outfit.

“Where’d you get that, the loser store?” the bully asked, as followers chimed in with comments about her hair.

LeFever said it was very realistic teachable moment. The goal is to encourage the bully to “move around the circle” and become a defender. To change behavior, teachers need to “intervene on the spot.”

Faculty members were told students need to feel safe and welcome in school and be able to focus on learning. Consistent consequences go a long way towards curtailing bullying in the school district.

Support staff members were also required to take the training, including secretaries and janitorial staff. The community also needs to be involved, trainers noted, as HIB can occur anywhere.

Class meetings were required as dialogue, including a “kindness circle,” helps prevent bullying incidents. Class meetings also help students get to know each other, providing teachers with an opportunity to see what’s happening in the classroom.

Students are encouraged to share tidbits of their day and talk about bullying. Teachers are required to keep a log of the meetings. Students who express concern about any kind of incidents should be pulled aside after the meeting. The meetings must be fit in the school day.

Trainers said the meetings help build “strong, trusting relationships” and provide a means for taking responsibility for bullying behavior. Meetings generally dramatically reduce the number of bullying incidents. Sitting on the floor with students, in a circle, helps students learn to work together and solve problems peacefully.

Bullying is generally an “imbalance of power,” allowing a student who is bigger or more powerful to pick on a smaller or less powerful student. Teachers were encouraged to use props, such as a talking stick or puppets, to get the anti-bullying message across.

The school’s anti-bullying program will officially kick off in January.

Superintendent Kathleen Taylor said the idea is to create a school environment where bullying is “not cool.” The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, she said, is “the most researched, scientifically-based bullying prevention program available” and is also one of several anti-bullying programs approved by the New Jersey Department of Education.

The program uses a systems approach to establishing the social culture and individualized behavioral supports that are needed for schools to achieve social and academic success for all students.

The training program provides clear guidelines in how to prevent bullying and how to intervene in bullying situations when required.

“The OBPP provides clear guidance on how the school should be working with concerned parents to bring bullying to an end,” she said.

The program also provides educational opportunities for parents, she said.

The “Anti-bullying Bill of Rights” is intended to strengthen the standards and procedures for preventing, reporting, investigating and responding to incidents of HIB. HIB is defined as a gesture, a written, verbal or physical act or electronic communication that substantially disrupts or interferes with the operations of the school district or the rights of others.

Administrators who do not investigate reported incidents would be disciplined, while students who bully could be suspended or expelled.

Pat Horvath will serve as the district’s anti-bullying coordinator, leading a team of school anti-bullying specialists charged with fostering a positive school climate.

A School Safety Team reviews claims. School districts will be graded by the state on their efforts to combat the bullying problem.

“It is important that everyone follows this to the letter of the law,” Taylor said.

Any incident of bullying must be verbally reported by the end of the day; it must be in writing within two days.

“There are very strict, very tight timelines,” she said. “We are working on a lot of things. It’s very hard to define what is and what is not bullying.”

“The state has put a great deal of emphasis on prevention,” Taylor said. “It’s important that any incident is reported and handled. The idea is to stop bullying before it starts.

Bullying occurs anywhere, anytime and the state is holding the school liable for HIB incidents no matter where they occur.

“If a child is at a birthday party on a Saturday and someone bullies them, and they come into school on Monday and tell someone about it, it has to be reported and investigated,” she said. “Everyone in the community has a responsibility. It’s a very strict law and we are going to have to comply with it. Parents are going to have to understand, we may have to investigate an incident that took place out of school. We will have to have programs for parents, too.”

 

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