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Schools take stand against bullying

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

WORTHINGTON -- At Round Lake-Brewster High School, a band of pink-shirted students pledged to stand up to bullying. At Worthington Middle School, peer mediation might do the trick. On the Prairie Elementary playground, the school's Peace Patrol reigns supreme.

It's all about using proactive measures to combat bullying, area educators say.

"We do have some programs in place that I think are very effective in helping (reduce) it," said Paul Besel, principal at Prairie Elementary.

The school has several programs in place to decrease bullying. Fifth-grade peer mediators work with students who are in conflict and a separate group, Peace Patrol, whose members were this year also trained in mediation, keep things civil during recess and free play.

"If there's something going on, they know they can go ahead and break it up or possibly refer it to peer mediation," explained Prairie Elementary Assistant Principal Josh Noble.

Teachers also use a "Morning Meeting," part of the national Responsive Classroom program, to develop respect between classmates.

"They spend 10 to 20 minutes every morning to get to know each other as a class, do community building," explained Noble. "If you feel like you're a part of your class and you feel like you belong, that right there eliminates some of the possibility of bullying because it opens up the lines of communication."

Mainly in the upper grades, teachers use Character First cards, which each focus on a specific character trait. When all the cards are put together, they form a picture.

The school also employs a full-time counselor and social worker.

"They feel comfortable going to that person and saying, 'Oh, so and so's picking on me. And they can have that conversation ... in a way that they don't feel they're going to be disciplined. Or maybe they don't want to get the other kid in trouble; they just want to say the other kid's bugging me."

Whatever the program used, Noble said students understand bullying isn't a good thing -- and they're responsive if they are called out on their behavior.

"What I've found, especially with fourth- to fifth-grade students, is once you start to talk to the individual that may be responsible for bullying and start to label it as that ... the majority of those kids, they've grown up (hearing) about bullying and they've probably heard about it from preschool on. They don't want to necessarily be that person. They've found themselves in a situation where they're teasing and harassing kids, but once you call it (bullying), that kid right away will be like, 'Man, I've really been taking this too far, I've been pushing the issue too much,'" he said.

Robin Medill, who works with middle school students with emotional or behavioral disorders, agreed.

"Our awareness is so much better now," she said. "Schools and the public in general are saying this is not acceptable, this is not OK."

At Worthington Middle School, peer involvement is an important part of battling bullying.

Eighth graders serve as peer mediators for all three grade levels, helping each side share their feelings and agree on a solution.

Medill has also worked with students in restorative circles -- a program in which she, an administrator, the disputants and two carefully chosen "positive peers" work through issues as a group -- and she's been made a believer in the program.

"It has a huge impact, doing it in a restorative way rather than being punitive, which we typically do. We send the kids to the office, they get a consequence, we're done. ... It was like, is it working? I've had a kid come in 15 times this year pretty much for the same kind of stuff, so obviously this isn't working for him. Whereas the girls that we (worked with) in that circle? They've not had another event," she said.

Medill has been studying restorative justice among eighth grade boys and has found in her research that restorative measures result in fewer office referrals and less absenteeism.

"Just punishing them all the time isn't going to solve it. They need to be educated why this isn't the thing to do," she said.

But fighting bullying comes with obstacles, too.

"Unfortunately some of the kids who are troubled, they're coming from homes that aren't providing the nurturing that the kids need. I had this one dad who said, 'Do you mean if my kid is getting beat up, he can't defend himself?' You try to get dad to think, back up a little bit, what happened before they came to blows?" said Clete Lipetzky, WMS principal. "If they're name calling and someone takes a swing at them, that doesn't mean they need to protect themselves; it means they need to keep their mouth shut," he said, adding parents sometimes get angry at the school.

Students aren't always on board with anti-bullying measures either. According to storyteller and author Kevin Strauss, who presented a Bully Blockers program at WMS earlier this month, anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of middle school students won't report bullying behavior, but not because they don't want to.

"Eighty to 90 percent of kids who see bullying feel badly about it, but they're not sure what to do," he said. "We have so much social stigma about being a tattletale."

Strauss tries to give students specific techniques for dealing with bullies. And district educators aren't giving up either.

"We can't eliminate it, but we can do whatever we can to make sure that kids have the skills to recognize it and be able to report it so it's not being a distractant and busting up their self-esteem," said Noble. "The message is getting out that it's not cool to be a bully."