By Matthew Tungate
To 5th graders at Pulaski Elementary School (Pulaski County), trying to put toothpaste back in the tube is a lesson in frustration. To Counselor Sue Stickley, it’s a lesson on bullying.
The activity is one of many that 5th-grade boys and girls participate in as part of a full-day, multi-session program that covers topics like bullying, empathy, tolerance and rumors/gossip – the point of the toothpaste exercise. “The activity does a great job of showing them that once you’ve said something, even if you try to take it back, the damage is done and you can’t ever completely undo that damage,” Stickley said.
It’s also one of the few lessons for both the boys and the girls, who are split into gender-specific programs called VIG (Very Important Girls) and NGA (No Girls Allowed), she said.
“It’s not like we have a huge bullying problem here, but it’s a concern in every school,” Stickley said.
Kentucky Safe Schools Week, Oct. 21-27, is focused on bullying this year, with the theme “Bullying: Be Part of the Cure.” During the week-long campaign students and educators are being asked to do their part to help stop bullying and create safe climates in their schools.
According to Jon Akers, executive director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety, schools receive the majority of the blame for what is really a community problem.
“We do not teach bullying in our schools,” Akers said. “We do not have any core content on that.”
Bullying has changed since he was a principal, he said.
Before the Internet age, bullies had to have a physical advantage over their victim in the pasts. Bullying now is more emotional and psychological – and there are three times as many reported cases of girls bullying girls as boys bullying boys, Akers said.
More than 50 percent of all American teens have been a victim of cyberbullying, according to the National Crime Prevention Association. Most never report the bullying.
“Face-to-face bullying is no longer the bullying du jour,” Akers said. “Since most bullying takes place behind the backs of teachers and parents or, now, electronically, it is very frustrating to know that most bullying victims never tell an adult or teacher. This enables the bullying to continue, and the consequences can be devastating.”
Karen McCuiston, director of the Resource Center at the Kentucky Center for School Safety, said the anonymity and immediacy of computers and mobile devices make cyberbullying easy – and it has become a matter of life and death.
“Approximately 25 students a year take their own lives because they are harassed, because they are cyberbullied so much that they can’t take another day, so they take their lives. This is curable. It’s not cancer. It’s just words, but they are killing our kids,” she said.
Schools are doing what they can to stop bullying, Stickley said. Bullying is important enough at her school that teachers are willing to give up a day for VIG and NGA, she said.
“It’s worth losing one day of not teaching the testable content because we feel like we gain a lot more than that day back in the prevention,” Stickley said.
At the elementary level, bullying is most often takes subtle, like exclusion from a group and hurtful comments, she said. Since about half of her 5th graders have a Facebook page, cyberbullying also is an issue.
Stickley said she developed VIG and NGA, which are in their fifth year, because she found a lot of research about how educators could react to bullying but little on how to prevent it. Students are separated by gender so the day can be tailored to their interest, with the goal being the same but with lessons approached in different ways.
Girls are put into small groups of five or six, with each group having an adult female staff member with them throughout the day. Besides their lessons on bullying and other topics, the school turns the library into a café with centerpiece arrangements and nice tableware. Girls end their day seeing that it is important to take care of themselves, so they get a mini yoga lesson and get to decorate a tote bag with fabric paint, Stickley said.
Boys go to a nearby church, where they have an all-male staff, made up mostly of community volunteers, with them. The boys’ event is more like a cookout, with lunch being served on a Frisbee, she said.
Melissa Prichard, a writing and science teacher at Pulaski Elementary, said students learn to be empowered and not be the bully or just a bystander.
“With this teaching in the beginning of the school year, it gives us a chance when a problem occurs to tell the students what role they are taking in each situation,” she said. “The kids then realize what they should have done in that situation.”
The programs also protect teaching time, said Krista Pierce, a 5th-grade social studies teacher.
“The VIG and NGA programs are designed to head off the usual behaviors and insecurities that start to be noticed in 5th grade: the cliques that develop, the ‘he said, she said’ problems that take valuable teacher time to sort out, the usage of e-mail (cyberbullying) and its pitfalls, and others, are all addressed during the day, and the students are given ideas and strategies to take care of the problems as they arise,” she said
Farristown Middle School (Madison County) began fighting bullying the day it opened two years ago, said Assistant Principal Brandon Watkins.
Teachers did an opening skit with teachers role playing a bullying situation the first day as part of the school’s Renaissance program, which encourages students to have positive attitudes, behaviors, academics and attendance, he said.
The school followed-up with another Renaissance rally in mid-year and started this year with another one that addressed bullying and promoted positive behavior, Watkins said.
Principal Alicia Hunter said posters throughout the building ask students to think before they speak. She also has a blog where students can send her concerns about any topic, including bullying.
“We wanted students to know that this is a safe place, that they came to school to learn, not to be bullied and not to be a bully, and we wanted to identify people they could talk to if this happened to them or one of their friends,” Hunter said.
Teachers also use Response to Intervention time to talk to students about bullying, Watkins said.
Jay Simmons coaches Positive Approach to Student Success (PASS), a program based around building positive relationships with students, at Farristown Middle. He said the lessons address how to treat others, self-respect, manners, helping others instead of hurting them and identifying bullying.
“This helps students to communicate with teachers when there is a problem, because we have a faculty that takes time to explain and model the correct types of behaviors. This helps teachers to identify and address not only the student that was being bullied, but the student that was bullying,” Simmons said.
Hunter said educators try to make sure that students know they can talk to an adult about problems and to ensure that teachers look for the signs of bullying.
“He (a student) may not have a black eye, but he looks like something is different than it was yesterday,” she said.
John Knuckles, a 6th-grade science teacher, requested to teach students about social skills because he sees a great need for students to learn how to deal with stress, he said.
“The first and most crucial component that I see here is a mutual respect between teachers and students. I treat my students with respect and empathy,” Knuckles said. “From that I receive the same respect back. When my students feel that I will respect what they have to say, they are far more likely to come to me with an issue.”
Last year, six school districts received awards at the Safe Schools, Successful Students Conference for receiving more than 1,000 pledges to surf smart, share less and think first online. In one of those school districts, Livingston County, the pledge effort was led by students in the Student Technology Leadership Program (STLP).
The theme for last year’s Kentucky Safe Schools Week (October 16-22, 2011) was “Cyber-Survivor” and covered Internet safety topics such as cyberbullying and social networking. Livingston Central High School’s STLP was instrumental in teaching the district’s elementary, middle and high school students about internet safety and offering them the opportunity to sign the online pledge, said Regina Durard, district technology/web administrator and STLP sponsor.
Durard said the students gave presentations using PowerPoint and videos on cyber safety, focusing on bullying. She said STLP now plans to make the lessons an annual event.
She said bullying in high school is challenging because students don’t always realize what bullying is. Some of them think they are just teasing or playing, but they are hurting a person’s feelings, she said.
Durard agreed that bullying is done more in cyberspace, and the STLP students emphasized that in their presentation.
“The times have changed, where it used to be just playground bullying or face-to-face bullying,” she said. “It’s not just that.”
Elisha Harp, special education teacher at Livingston Central High and STLP co-sponsor, said the STLP students’ presentation last year had a big effect on younger students.
This project was an excellent example of student mentoring within our district and was well-received by the younger students,” she said. “I believe our STLP students should conduct this activity again because it is an excellent way to address such a serious issue and the message has a greater impact on younger students when it is delivered by peers they view as role models.”
Kentucky Center for Safe Schools