By Michael Marsee
Karen McCuiston wants to recruit an army of superheroes.
With her red cape and matching boots, McCuiston looked like a superhero herself during a program she presented last month at North Middle School (Hardin County), in which she used her powers to teach students about the virtues of building self-esteem and the evils of bullying.
McCuiston’s mission is to create safer schools. It is both a personal and professional passion for her and she works tirelessly to achieve that through her position as a resource director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety (KCSS).
That’s especially true at this time of year, as schools mark National Bullying Prevention Month in October and Kentucky Safe Schools Week Oct. 18-24. She speaks to classes, student groups, entire schools and groups of educators in the weeks leading up to Kentucky Safe Schools Week.
That means donning a cape for the theme of this year’s Kentucky Safe Schools Week, “I Want To Be a School Safety Superhero.” The program focuses on building the self-esteem of students and creating an environment that reduces bullying, cyberbullying, harassment and conflict.
“It’s not just about the bullying and the violence. We start with, ‘How do we make somebody feel better about themselves?’” McCuiston said.
At North Middle, McCuiston spoke to a class about what it means to be a superhero at school and highlighted the word “SUPER” (strong, understanding, powerful, encouraging, respectful). She called on five students to put on capes and breastplates and hold shields that underscored the theme. She said superheroes ranging from Superman to Captain America started with problems or issues and turned their uniqueness into a power, which they used for the betterment of society.
“It’s basically character ed, but sometimes we miss out on that,” said Jodie Bodnar, the youth services coordinator at North Middle. “We’re so focused on teaching the main subjects that we forget to remind them on the main points of just being a good person.”
Toward that end, McCuiston has made a variety of resources available to teachers and schools in the hope that every school will join the campaign to improve school safety by educating students, staff and community members.
The KCSS web page on Kentucky Safe Schools Week is packed with things schools can use to promote the event in both school and the community, from PowerPoint presentations and lessons to ideas for the school cafeteria. A downloadable booklet of handouts includes online activities and allows educators to select the activities they want to use.
A great deal of the planning for Safe Schools Week at North Middle will be left to the students. Bodnar and 8th-grade social studies teacher Te’Andra Parker are among the cosponsors of the student council. They are using the council to make students the driving force behind the program in their school.
“A lot of times we try decide what we think kids are going to like and what we think will be a powerful message to them. What will be different is the kids will be doing it and the kids will be delivering the message, not me,” Bodnar said. “We want them to plan it out.”
Parker said more students should get the message when it comes from their peers.
“They receive it better from students. Adults can say it all day long, but when a student says it to them, when it’s their peer, they will receive it,” Parker said.
Beyond the resources, KCSS offers support in the form of an online reporting tool that encourages students and others who know of an unsafe situation in school to anonymously report it to school personnel.
McCuiston also wants schools to encourage their students to take the online School Safety SUPERhero Pledge. A map on the website indicates the number of students in each county that have taken the pledge. As of Sept. 30, on the eve of the start of National Bullying Prevention Month, 11 counties had pledges from at least 50 students, and more than 2,000 students statewide had taken the pledge. Hickman County had pledges from more than 250 students, and Calloway County had pledges from more than 500 students.
“The pledge is part of it, but it’s a small part of it because it’s the lessons that you get in the classrooms that drive the point home,” McCuiston said.
McCuiston is enthusiastic and impassioned about her job. In 1997, she was three months into her job as the public relations officer for McCracken County Schools when a Heath High School student opened fire on a group of students participating in a prayer circle in the school lobby. Three students were killed and five others were wounded.
McCuiston dealt with the media in the aftermath of the shooting and her husband was on the school faculty at the time.
“That changed my life. It changed my direction and that’s why it’s so important to me for us to get those words out and make people stop and think how much they’re hurting each other,” she said.
She cited a survey that said most school shooters who offered explanations for their actions said they were bullied or called names at school.
“If we can address that at this level, let’s start with bullying and feeling good and respect. And let’s try to make the school community a better place, where we feel comfortable to trust an adult and we know somebody we can go to,” McCuiston said.
MORE INFO …
Karen McCuiston firstname.lastname@example.org
Jodie Bodnar Jodie.email@example.com
Te’Andra Parker firstname.lastname@example.org