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'Bullying is not OK in this school'

Tuesday, September 19, 2000

By Mary Niederberger, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

At Harrison Middle School in Whitehall, principals are teaching students the tricks of bullies -- name-calling, exclusion, ridicule, pushing, shoving and threatening.

It's for a good purpose. They're hoping that if students can recognize the actions of bullies, they'll be able to put them out of business.

"We want the students to understand what bullying is and to report it to an adult right away," said Principal Donna Milanovich.

Milanovich, teachers and counselors devised during the summer an anti-bullying education campaign for Harrison, which has 1,160 students in grades six through eight in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District. The goal is to wipe out bullying at the middle school and, eventually, throughout the district.

The bullying issue became a priority for the school in March when an eighth-grader at Harrison, who had been a longtime victim of bullying, sneaked a loaded shotgun into school. The 14-year-old, who had carried the weapon onto the school bus, was entering the crowded cafeteria when he was spotted by physical education teacher Dave Thorne.

Thorne and two colleagues asked the boy to unload the gun and place it on the floor. He complied. School officials declined to comment on the boy's punishment.

"When we investigated the incident, we found that he had been bullied for a very long time, not just at this school but in the past as well," Milanovich said.

The program being initiated now at Harrison draws largely from the research of Dan Olweus, a psychology professor from Norway who is considered the leading authority on bullying, based on his 20 years of research on the topic. Milanovich said other schools who have used Olweus' recommendations have seen a 50 percent reduction in bullying incidents after two years.

The program calls for clearly defining for students what bullying is and how to react to it. It encourages students to "break the code of silence" that often keeps them from telling on one another even in serious situations, Milanovich said.

At Harrison, the students get the message the minute they step into the main entrance of school where a large banner declares: "Bullying is not OK in this school."

Other signs around the school, purchased with a $500 donation from the Harrison PTSA, carry no-bullying messages.

Also, a back-to-school letter sent to each family details the program, and each faculty member received a thick stack of literature about bullying.

Among the experts whose work is included in the packet is Mary Margaret Kerr, outreach director for the Services for Teens at Risk Center at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic.

Kerr, whose 12-year-old son attends Harrison, said she was impressed with the program that Milanovich and her staff have put together. "They've gathered all of the best practices on the subject and incorporated them," Kerr said.

Baldwin-Whitehall Superintendent Charles Faust said the Harrison anti-bullying campaign was "very straightforward and direct. It says just don't do it and here are some simple ways you can help yourself and help others," Faust said.

He said a version of the program will be used later at the high school and elementary schools. In addition, the staff of social workers has increased from three to five so that each school has its own.

Milanovich said in reviewing research on bullying her staff found some surprising insights. For example, she said, it was long believed by educators that bullies were students with low self-esteem.

But current research shows that bullies generally have high self-esteem and often are the more popular students, bright pupils and those whose example other students are willing to follow.

Bullying tends to peak in the middle-school years, she said, and diminish in high school. Perhaps less surprising is that students who bully often don't recognize themselves as bullies, and when their parents are called, they, too, deny that their children are bullies.

In May, Harrison administrators held a three-day workshop for 12 boys who had been identified as bullies -- some of them accused of bullying the boy who took the shotgun to school.

"They may have realized that some of their actions were inappropriate, but they never attached them to bullying," said Randal Lutz, an assistant principal who helped conduct the sessions. "Then when we talked about bullying, they identified behaviors as bullying, but didn't connect them to themselves."

By the end of the three-day workshop, Lutz said, the boys had come to accept the fact that they had bullied and to realize what effect that had on their victims. "We saw a lot of growth," Lutz said.

More workshops are planned for pupils who are clearly identified as bullies -- those who have a documented pattern of abusing other students either physically, verbally or by encouraging isolation.

And though May's session was held with the permission of each of the boy's parents, future sessions will be held with pupils with or without parental consent.

"We'd like parents to be involved from the very first," Milanovich said. "Only when these initial steps don't work will we do individual programs with students."

PTSA President Judy Hahn said the parents she had talked with were happy with the anti-bullying program. "They did an excellent job in putting this together. I think everyone is in agreement with what they are doing," Hahn said.

The program was officially explained to pupils during meetings last week between teams of students and the school's two assistant principals, Lutz and Michael Sears, and social worker Jean Willliams-Turner.

During the meetings, school policies and rules were reviewed, but most of the time was spent explaining the concept of bullying and what wouldn't be tolerated at Harrison.

The pupils also watched a short video that included four bullying scenarios: a group of girls excluding another girl from a lunch table and group activities; another group of girls making fun of another girl in front of the class; a group of boys stealing another boy's basketball and then excluding him from the game; and a group of boys repeatedly verbally and physically abusing another boy.

Tyrone Lee, 11, a sixth-grader, said he didn't realize that some of the behaviors depicted in the video were considered bullying. But, as he watched the clips, he imagined himself as the victim. "I kept thinking if that was me, there probably would be a fight," Tyrone said.

But he said he learned during the group discussion that the appropriate response would be to get help from an adult.

It's a message that will be repeated over and over again to pupils this year. And as part of the program, all adults in the school -- including janitors, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and coaches -- will be trained to watch out for incidents of bullying and to make themselves available to help pupils.

It's an important component of the program because, according to Kerr, research has shown that the reason children don't report bullying incidents is that they are afraid adults won't do anything about it. Milanovich said she wanted to make sure that adults were ready to act on reports and that adults were supervising all areas of the school where bullying might take place.

So, teachers now have been assigned to patrol hallways and stairwells during class exchanges and to keep a close eye on pupils during cafeteria and gym time.

In an effort to cut down on pupils who may feel isolated in the cafeteria, the school got rid of its rectangular lunch tables and replaced them two weeks ago with round tables.

"That way, everyone is facing each other and everyone can be included in the conversation," Milanovich said.

Pupils also are being encouraged to use a "Need Help?" box outside the main office in which they can place anonymous complaints or requests for help.

After attending a 90-minute session with the principals last Tuesday, sixth-grader Michele Brennan said she was happy knowing "that there are a lot of people out there who will look out for other people. I know now that if [bullying] happened, I would tell an adult."

The words brought a smile from Lutz.

"That's exactly what we want to hear," he said.

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