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The Paramus Post - Greater Paramus News and Lifestyle Webzine
Friday, December 13 2019 @ 12:50 AM EST
The Paramus Post - Greater Paramus News and Lifestyle Webzine
Friday, December 13 2019 @ 12:50 AM EST
The Paramus Post - Greater Paramus News and Lifestyle Webzine

Proactive approach to bullying allows victims to stand tall

Polly Parsons, a counselor at Williamsville (Ill.) Junior High School had her hands full at the start of this school year with several sixth-grade girls who wouldn't stop picking on one another. She knew the girls needed help sorting out their emotions, so she arranged for the dozen or so students to meet with her during their lunch hour. They sat in a circle, and each had a chance to explain what she was going through.What began as an attempt to quell bullying evolved into a weekly lunch meeting for the original group of girls plus others who Parsons believes will benefit from it. The confidential talks give the students a chance to take part in "honesty sessions" and discuss issues facing girls their age.

This proactive approach is a departure from that at most other schools, where punishment - ranging from detention to expulsion - often is a major component of the response to a bullying problem.

Experts argue that disciplinary measures are not enough.

Research from the National Association of School Psychologists indicates that school bullying policies that set severe consequences can be detrimental to students because it doesn't address the root of the problem. Researchers instead encourage schoolwide prevention programs that focus on creating positive school environments to curb bullying.

Williamsville and Pleasant Plains are two school districts opting for preventive, proactive approaches to examine bullying among students.

"Behind closed doors, the No. 1 thing I hear about is bullying," Parsons said.

She believes that prevention is key to addressing the issue - for both genders - which is why she is working with other teachers and counselors to educate students about the issue.

This year, all junior high students at Williamsville attended classes based on material from the Respect for All Project, a nationally-based program that aims to create safe schools and communities by giving youth, their educators and service providers tools to address and understand diversity of all kinds. As part of the program, Williamsville students participated in role-playing and watched the documentary "Let's Get Real," in which real students discuss their experiences with bullying.

The classes spurred students to speak up. And while the youngest students, the sixth-graders, were less likely to say they'd witnessed bullying, nearly all eighth-graders said they'd either seen or experienced it.

Parsons also is working with eighth-grade students, known as the Ally Alliance, who wrote a grant for the district that would fund the purchase of video equipment, T-shirts and other materials for an anti-bullying curriculum that would be taught yearly, she said, "so that this is not a bullying school." They submitted the grant to the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority on April 14 and will learn June 16 if it was accepted.

The Ally Alliance also produced a video with help from two Williamsville High School students in the SAVE - Students Against Violence Everywhere - program. The video features junior high students describing written and spoken bullying and its effects.

The video closes with the text of a speech given by Auburn High School valedictorian Chelsey Shores on her graduation day May 27, 2005.

In the speech, Shores advised her fellow graduates: "People will judge you unfairly, and they can make your life unbearable. Don't let mean-spirited people get you down."

Ten days later, Shores killed herself.

"Her story was the impetus for all of this," Parsons said, noting the video is in her memory. "It deals with issues of the heart, not the brain."

When told about her daughter's role in the video, Chelsey's mother, Beverly Shores, said she hopes it helps students think about how they treat others.

"Maybe if they see someone sitting at a lunch table alone, they'll let them eat with them," she said. "Some people like to be mean to others because it makes them feel bigger when they're in a crowd or group. ... Sometimes people do things together they wouldn't do alone."

Although the video could not be submitted as part of the grant, Parsons said the students designated money from the grant to distribute copies to other schools and create additional videos on the issue.

Parsons said nearby schools already have expressed interest in using it in their curricula.

At Pleasant Plains Middle School, Principal John Marsaglia says that he believes the school is as responsible for students' character and emotional well-being as for their academics.

His and Assistant Principal Bill Carpenter's message to students who bully is: "We don't do that here."

To emphasize the point, posters with that motto are displayed throughout the school. The face on the posters is frowning with a single tear running down the cheek.

"Mr. Marsaglia and I talk about this a lot," Carpenter said. "We want to establish that at this school we set a level of expectation that other schools around us are jealous of. We believe that we won't accept things that maybe other schools will. We want our school to be better than everybody else."

The theme at Pleasant Plains this school year has been developing people of integrity.

To build and reinforce this trait, Marsaglia said the middle school relies on a core group of teachers at each grade level that leads advisory teams. Each team consists of about 25 students. Every student in the school belongs to a team and receives about 35 minutes of advisory time a day. Enrollment at the school is about 425 students.

The school's four teachers who teach only eighth-grade students, for example, gather daily to discuss their respective student teams. They talk about instruction and students' academics as well as "team discipline" - classroom issues such as tardiness, problems with homework and how students treat one another, Marsaglia said.

Each month, a different grade-level team teaches the student body an additional character trait - responsibility, respect, honesty - to boost integrity.

"The team handles a lot of the problems before they become a major component," Marsaglia said. "Every single day, our grade-level teams meet to talk with each other, to talk with kids, to talk about the problems they're seeing.

"And if they get to the point where nothing seems to work, then they pull Bill and I in, and we get involved with it."

Carpenter teaches "character education" to all fifth-grade students; the class outlines the emotional and physical types of bullying as well as different ways to address them.

Another part of the school's bullying prevention program is a PowerPoint presentation in story form, "Become a 'Bully Buster.'" It addresses various types of bullying and how to stop them. Marsaglia and a group of eighth-grade students wrote the story, which will be incorporated into the character education curriculum.

"Between what Carpenter does in fifth grade, and then all the teachers doing something during advisory time, we pretty much teach kids that if they feel like they're being bullied, they need to come to us," Marsaglia said.

That open-door policy helps school officials empower bullying victims, he said.

"I say to the bully, 'The victim is now empowered. If the victim comes back to us and says it's not stopped, then you're going to be punished for it,'" Marsaglia said. "I'm putting the victim in control, so it puts them on a level playing field."

But "(victims) can use that as a weapon, so we have to be very careful on how we prescribe that to kids. So far it's been pretty effective. We don't have a lot of repeat where they come back and say it's not stopped."

Marsaglia added that he doesn't believe in the notion of once a bully, always a bully.

"I think that we can make a difference, and at least change some of the bullying pretty quick," Marsaglia said. "I think all kids have the ability to bully."

Which is why Pleasant Plains Middle School officials have worked especially hard to reach a sixth-grade boy who habitually bullied other children and caused trouble on a school bus.

Marsaglia presented a behavioral contract to the student that consists of various anti-bullying pledges. The student, his teacher, Marsaglia, Carpenter and the boy's parents signed it.

As part of the contract, Marsaglia and Carpenter developed a chart on which the student is given a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down sign, depending on how he treated other children during daily bus rides to and from school.

After receiving a certain number of thumbs-up marks, the student, who comes from a separated family, is rewarded with an activity of his choice, shared with his parents.

"His behavior has been almost immaculate since we started this," Marsaglia said. "We knew there was a good kid in there, but we had to figure out something to do. We teach the concepts and then sometimes you need to do a little bit more.

"I think the worst thing we can say to a kid is, 'You just need to figure it out on your own,' or 'Just ignore it.' You've got to teach the kid how to ignore it, how to walk away, how to stand up and say, 'Please stop doing this.'"

Carpenter reiterated that the goal - and hope - is that when students leave the school, "They're better people because of it."

"You're never going to cure them totally because ... there's bullies out there in the adult world, too," Carpenter said. "You've got to give them tools to deal with that type of behavior."

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