Stomping out bullying

By Heleigh Bostwick

Observer correspondent

October 17th, 2013

October may be National Bullying Prevention Month, but at Williston schools and Champlain Valley Union High School, bullying prevention is something that happens every day.

“What we have is more preventative than programmatic,” said Dan Shepardson, Fairbanks House Director at CVU. “We meet with all of the freshmen at the start of school year and talk about what can get you thrown out of school—things like drugs, bullying and harassment. Why it’s illegal and what to do about it if you see it or are affected yourself.”

At Williston Central School, it’s about setting expectations, said Principal Jackie Parks. Three times a year, starting in September, Parks and the guidance counselors meet with students to focus on school rules and expectations.

“We spend one-third of our time talking about bullying, another third on harassment and the remaining third on school expectations…being good citizens and setting the tone for the year,” Parks said.

At Allen Brook, school counselor Carolyn Tatlock said that, although bullying is rare at the K-2 grade level, it does happen.

“Most of our work is preventative,” she said. “We do a lot of activities around empathy, one of the most important behaviors lacking in bullying behavior.”

Tatlock spent nine weeks at the start of the school year in the classrooms, focusing on identifying and expressing feelings using puppets and other age-appropriate methods.

Harassment can be a one-time event, focusing on protected categories such as race or religion, whereas bullying is something that happens over time. It can be difficult to differentiate between the two.

“Mean behavior is mean behavior, it might not be bullying,” Parks said. “The first time might be seen as mean behavior, but if it happens more than once and we see a pattern and then it gets into bullying.”

Tatlock concurred. “At this age (K-2) something may be called bullying, but it might just be mean behavior.”

All three schools use a house system, intended to make a big school seem smaller and more personal. Each house has a guidance counselor assigned to it that students can use as a resource—not just for scheduling classes, but as a trusted adult a student can go to if he or she is being picked on.

“If they don’t feel they can go to someone they can trust, we won’t accomplish a whole lot,” said Shepardson. “At CVU we have systems in place that we hope establish relationships with kids so they feel more comfortable talking to adults.”

“Getting kids to report to adults is part of the challenge,” Parks agreed. “We do a lot of work around this. Kids need a go-to person—a trusted adult to share if something’s going on.”

Tatlock emphasized that it’s also important—especially as kids get older—to speak up when kids see something happening.

“It may not be happening to them, but they still have a responsibility to speak up,” she said.

“Reporting is important because it helps us see a pattern of behavior,” agreed Shepardson. “Just report it, you don’t have to label as harassment or bullying. Let the administration do that.”

One of the strategies in place at WCS is online safety boxes, where students can report incidents anonymously.

“Each team has an online safety box on their website and it goes right to the guidance counselors,” Parks said.

When a bullying incident is reported by a parent or student, schools have designated employees who are trained to investigate the incident. Staff and faculty undergo training every year as well.

“We investigate every report and make a determination as to what category it falls under,” Parks said. “Consequences increase on a continuum each time an offense occurs.”

“At first, recess might be restricted,” she said. “There may be reading materials and questions they need to answer that increase their understanding of what bullying and harassment are.”

If the behavior continues, a student is subject to in-school suspension, followed by out-of-school suspension.

“It’s an ongoing process that we’re constantly teaching kids,” said Parks, adding that the curriculum at WCS includes read aloud books with themes about being accepting or being a good person, a good citizen and a good learner.

“It used to be just on playgrounds and buses, but now it’s Facebook and Twitter,” Shepardson said. “It’s not just boys being boys anymore. Society has changed and we have to change with it.”