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Prairie Elem. learns about bullying

Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series about bullying in local schools.

WORTHINGTON -- "Why'd you push me?" says Prairie Elementary Principal Paul Besel, imitating a kindergartner.

"Cause I don't like you."

"Well, why don't you like me?"

"'Cause you're wearing yellow shoes," he answers himself.

To the average adult, Besel's rendition of a primary school "conflict" doesn't make too much sense. But to the average elementary school student, it might.

Bullying and conflicts can be a big deal, especially as students get older and increasingly less willing to share thoughts and feelings.

"Most of the time teachers can talk to kids and work it out, but sometimes they need our help," said Prairie Elementary Assistant Principal Josh Noble. "We have a counselor who will work with the kids to get in touch with their feelings and why they act out aggressively."

Bullying is often defined as repeated intimidation of a person or group of people. A definition for children offered by the PACER Center's Kids Against Bullying Web site describes a situation in which "someone is hurting another person on purpose and the kid who is doing it has more power."

But administrator's say bullying activity in young children may not always be purposeful.

"They may not even know they're doing it. It's a clique, or something that they're doing is funny or fun but they don't realize it's causing hurt or discomfort for another child," said Noble.

The age group involved also means behavior can look different than at the secondary school level.

"In K through third you deal with more teasing and name calling and you start to get into that little pushing, shoving. Some of the third graders start to get into some of that 'you can't be friends with so and so if you're friends with me.' In fourth and fifth grade we're dealing with friend groups and they start to get into their cliques more," said Noble. "Somewhat of a concern is more girls are involved or maybe we're just hearing about it more."

Kevin Strauss, a naturalist storyteller and presenter of a bullying prevention program for students, said bullying at the elementary school level often tends more toward physical bullying among boys and later shifts to social bullying among girls as children near adolescence. Bullying also begins at a younger age than most would suspect, he said.

"All the statistics show it happens younger, among kindergartners," he said. "Maybe it's not technically defined as bullying yet, because they are still figuring their lives out and trying out new behaviors."

In the same vein, Besel said bullying often isn't bullying at all.

"A lot of times it is a misunderstanding of what was said or what the action was," he explained. "It could be somebody shoves somebody when they're playing flag football out on the playground. And the kid didn't like that so they shoved back. And then you find out they were just playing a game and somebody (accidentally) bumped into somebody else ... So, you see, a lot of things can escalate very quickly from misunderstanding."

"Here, we still have some of the kids where it's just simply a rule-breaking behavior," added Noble. "It's kind of hard to weigh out if it is something they can sit down and talk about or do they just need to be reminded of the rules? It might be isolated instances of kids making bad choices."

There are several measures in place to reduce bullying at Prairie Elementary, including the Peace Patrol, which helps students deal with conflicts during recess and Character First, a collectable card program that teaches students good values. Ultimately, administrators say they rely on students to come to them for help --- and hope students can rely on them.

"Thankfully we are hearing about (bullying) more. I guess some would say that it's gotten worse over the past years and I guess I don't know if that's the case. We are just hearing more about those situations so we can address it. We hope the kids trust teaching staff and adults in their life enough so they can go to them for help."

A more in-depth look at what Prairie Elementary is doing to reduce bullying, as well as a look at bullying in Worthington Middle School, will follow later this week.