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Bullying prevention efforts paying off

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Counselor says disciplinary-action numbers declining

By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

TELL CITY - The Tell City-Troy Township School Corp. is doing such a good job of implementing Olweus anti-bullying measures in its schools that a William Tell Elementary School counselor was asked to speak at the International Bullying Prevention Association National Conference.

Sally Wolfe said Tuesday she talked about "empowering bystanders" at the event, conducted Nov. 15 to 19 in Pittsburgh.

"We're trying to get students to stand up and intervene if they see someone being bullied," she explained. That doesn't mean asking youngsters to put themselves in danger, but to tell a bully if they don't stop, an adult will be notified.

Anti-bullying efforts were kicked off at the elementary school with a school-wide assembly a few days after the academic year began. Included in the event were promises from all of the adults associated with the school - teachers, administrators, bus drivers and cafeteria and maintenance workers - to help any child who is bullied.

Junior-high students assembled in late August to celebrate the culmination of an Olweus Program launch there, and high-school staffers will undergo training in time for a fall expansion into that building.

Founded by Swedish research professor of psychology Dan Olweus, who has studied bullying for 30 years, the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program is the only program of its kind directed at bully-victim problems in school, according to biographical information about him available at a Clemson University Web site.

"One of the big pluses of Olweus is kids know they can go to any adult," Wolfe said. They've all undergone Olweus training and "everybody in this building is on the same page and deals with bullying the same way," she added.

"These kids are getting it," she said with pride.

Adult Connections

It was important to put staff-led practices in place before teaching students about the importance of bystander intervention, the counselor said. "Teachers need to build an emotional connection with their students (and) show students they'll respond quickly when bullying is reported."

That promise and other Olweus teachings are repeated in 30-minute meetings conducted every Monday morning in each classroom, Wolfe said.

Because no schoolwide guidance existed on how adults should respond, students who bullied others in the past may have had a "so-what?" attitude about claims someone would tell on them, she explained.

"Now that Olweus is in place, and now that we adults have all come down so hard on bullying, that's not happening as much, because kids realize, 'uh-oh! This is going to be dealt with.' After a bullying situation, it continues on, because the bully is talked to individually, as is the victim. And that's never been done before; there's follow-up with the victim as well as follow-up with the student who bullied."

"Following an incident, we do empathy training with the bully," she continued. "We meet with the bully and try to get them to put themselves in the other person's place, and that's not just a one-shot deal. That's one of the main reasons why Olweus has been so well-accepted and considered the No. 1 research-based anti-bullying program in the world, because the empathy training is huge."

Teams Formed

Victims can't be expected to stand up for themselves, the counselor said. "They need the bystander's help, because peers will listen more to peers, and they need to have access to adult support. Kids need to feel safe to take that next step and try to intervene by telling the bully, 'stop what you are doing' and 'if you don't stop, I'll report you.' " The courage to do that is bolstered when students know the adults they tell will back them.

The bystander's involvement is so important, she said, that McDonald's is giving free McFlurries to students who intervene in bullying situations, and "that has been very successful."

Even efforts such as these can draw criticism, and Wolfe said someone complained what "our school corporation paying for a mascot," referring to Will Tell, a character introduced at the kickoff assembly whose name is drawn from the city's heritage and reinforces the idea that bullying will be reported to adults. Wolfe noted, however, that all of the Olweus efforts were fully funded by an anonymous $25,000 donation, a Schergens Foundation grant and contributions from elementary and junior-high parent-teacher organizations.

"There is not one dime of cost to the school corporation," she said.

As part of her conference presentation, Wolfe listed some methods proven not to be effective in stopping bullying. Hitting or threatening to fight, telling the bully how they feel, telling the bully to stop, or walking away don't work, according to victims.

Victims say several things do help, she said. Having an adult listen to them, give them advice, assure them "they will be talking to the bully" and following up later are effective, Wolfe said.

Follow-ups include phone calls from the person working with the victim to ask how he or she is doing, "and parents have been extremely appreciative of that."

Discipline Referrals Down

"We've seen a definite decrease in discipline referrals. There's more of a sense of community in the building," Wolfe said.

That's not to say no problems remain. Wolfe noted that bullying comes in varied forms. It can be direct or indirect, physical or emotional, such as exclusion and rumors. "The teasing, making fun, put-downs, that's always been a problem" and may be harder to detect. "It's not just the in-your-face bullying and shoving and the physical stuff."

Being alert for and preventing "the physical stuff" can go a long way toward making students feel safer. One way William Tell staffers do that is by meeting their classes in the school's lobby each morning and escorting them to their classrooms, instead of allowing everyone to run down the halls when a bell rings.

"I've seen people run into or push others," Wolfe said. At both the elementary and junior-high schools, she added, "we've readjusted our supervision to eliminate 'hot spots' where bullying is more likely to occur.

This is a systems change. It's going to take time, but the research shows that each year, if it's done with fidelity and consistency, the numbers continue to go down."

School-safety expert Michael Dorn, who presented information in February to help kick off the anti-bullying efforts, will speak from 5 to 6 p.m. Tuesday at Perry Central High School Room F215.