Team up: Battle against bullying

Team up: Battle against bullying
It only takes one person repeating one act to cast a negative shadow on the daily livelihood of another, but it takes the unified effort of a supportive team to get everything back on track for success.
One of these teams is the collective unit of people who make up the committee for the Street Law Program – an evidence-based initiative designed to promote anti-bullying prevention education in Weakley County Schools.
Though anti-bullying efforts are nothing new, this program is marking its first year of establishment with Carly Wheat of the juvenile court office serving as an extension in visiting sixth-and seventh-graders across the county. Wheat is wrapping up work with sixth-graders and is preparing to take the program to seventh-graders after the Christmas break.
Friday afternoon, a few of the committee members sat down to discuss bullying and the Street Law Program and how to ensure others, most importantly students and parents, join the team for this effort.
Juvenile Court Judge James Bradberry and youth services officer Keith Jones explained that, over the years with the increasing implementation of computers and social networking, the method of bullying has changed rather than the action.
“You can look someone in the face and call them a name and that’s between you and them, but if you get on one of the social networking sites, you can call the person a name or make an insinuation or an allegation and it’s widespread around the world wide web,” Jones said.
“Cyber-bulling is much more about emotions than the physical intimidation,” Bradberry added.
Lorna Benson of Safe and Drug-Free Schools and the Weakley County Prevention Coalition remarked that home no longer feels like a safe place for those being subjected to cyber-bullies. There is no longer a place for students to escape the troubles or concerns of the school day. Gaining access to the feelings of a person is now just a text message away and bullying has become “almost inescapable.”
“The big thing with bullying over social media is it promotes others to bully,” Director of Schools Randy Frazier said. “In a one-on-one physical bullying situation, only the crowd there knows what’s going on, but because of cyber-bullying, many people are touched by the situation and end up encouraging it.”
Assistant Director of Schools Jeff Kelley added that, in most cases, the people who choose to bully over social networks are those who would not normally be bullies away from the computer. Hiding behind the screen makes them braver.
“From a school standpoint, bullying is any behavior that interferes with a student being able to come to school in peace and be able to learn without fear,” Kelley said.
Brittany Mangiaracinia serves as a school social worker in the Weakley County system.
“With texting, for example, if Carly (Wheat) does something to my face to make me angry, I may not go up to her and say anything. I may take a while to cool off, think it through and decided that it’s not really that big of a deal, but if you have texting, you’re on there already saying something before you even really think through the process,” she said.
Through such websites as Facebook, students are enabled to create a new identity and a different personality because of the cloak of anonymity.
In many cases, Jones says, students lie about their age in order to create an account and most of the time, parents either help them, which encourages dishonesty, or remain oblivious to the fact their children have an account or multiple accounts.
“And the role of the juvenile court is all of this is to reflect there is a punishment for that (bullying). If it gets to a level that brings you to juvenile court, you will be punished. We’ve taken on the statutory role of the court – rehabilitation. Carly’s involved in the education of the students and getting the message across to them that if you ignore this, you’ll come to juvenile court who will deal with it very harshly. I don’t like it. My role is to protect those who are subjected to it (bullying),” Bradberry said.
Mangiaracinia brought up the subject of being a bystander to an incident of bullying and how bystanders are just as guilty as the bully in not being proactive and taking the initiative to help.
“We want all parties from students to parents to community members to know we have a united effort to change the culture,” Frazier said. “As a former principal, I had a rule and I told the students if there is a fight and you go to an area to watch the fight, I’m going to punish you also because you’re promoting that. It’s the same with bullying. So many innocent bystanders promote the bullying. They may not say anything, but they laugh when someone makes fun of someone else.”
“It’s a culture we all have responsibility for, from teachers to students to parents to the juvenile department, to play a role in,” he added. “We hope we can tailor that at a young age.”
“From week to week, the role of the bystander I mainly know and the one we mainly discuss is the person who knows it’s (bullying) wrong, but they don’t do anything about it because they’re too shy or scared,” Wheat said.
Kelley mentioned an email that had recently been sent out across the school system asking several questions and leading with the idea that anti-bullying should be promoted all the time and not just during Anti-Bullying Awareness Month in October.
Questions included:
• Do students in your school have a way of reporting bullying anonymously?
• Do you have a way of tracking reported incidents of bullying in your school?
• Are staff members assigned locations in hallways, bathrooms, locker rooms or other areas between classes during breaks to help monitor what takes place?
Are these people really paying attention to what goes on?
• Do you have adult bullies on your staff?
Both Frazier and Kelley stressed that many schools were already taken action including placing bulletin boards on the wall encouraging a change in climate and taking requests for changes and continuing with successful good-behavior reward programs such as Character Counts, Citizen of the Month, STAR students, the positive behavior program at Martin Middle School and the school store, The Lions’ Den, at Dresden Middle.
“We haven’t just begun addressing this. There have been efforts in this county for years, but with the increased attention nationally and the momentum the topic has gotten, we must keep it our front,” Benson said.
“The leadership in the schools now is becoming more proactive about preventing issues rather than punishing issues. Run us out of business. Climate change needs to happen,” Jones said.
The school handbook has a tip line and calling Crimestoppers is another option. Additionally, reporting forms have always been available and websites are being worked on to include a special link for reporting an incident. Wheat also has plans in the works to possibly create a Facebook page named after the program and offer students the opportunity to send messages anonymously.
“The assist and mentoring programs will help with this too because there will be teachers assigned to at-risk students and they will form a relationship with those students and those students will feel more comfortable reporting. That’s what it’s all about,” Mangiaracinia said.
If an incident is reported, Frazier says the student will be punished, the parents/guardians will be contacted and then anti-bullying education will continue. There is no set policy for punishment, but the principal will decide.
But, shifting gears, what about the underlying reasons a person has for bullying? Most of the time, there’s never a simple answer. Most of the time, according to Frazier, the person is practicing a learned behavior.
“The bullying could be happening because a person is taking money when he or she has no money to buy lunch with and he or she is hungry. It could be that these bullies are victims of child abuse or physical sexual abuse that has occurred within the home,” Jones said.
“When parents see their children come home and the children are sad or dark or they rush to their room with no conversation or do something else out of the ordinary questions need to be asked. We get so busy from day to day rushing around that sometimes we don’t notice and we need to take the time and talk and be interested. That’s when you open the door. It may not be immediate. It may take the tenth or the twentieth time, but that’s where I see this going and then maybe this program will no longer by needed. Maybe this initiative will have outgrown itself and we can talk about other initiatives,” he added.
Committee members could not stress enough the importance of togetherness and the critical need for parents and students to be a part of the team along with law enforcement officials, school officials and teachers.
“We have parenting problems. Everyone knows that. We have parenting problems in society. If I were a principal back in school now, for culture and climate, I would have a school committee that included teachers, but the most important people I would include would be students. And not the quarterback of the football team, but a good cross section,” Kelley said.
“These are the ones who might be bullied and these are the ones who will tell you where the bullying is taking place. Give those kids a sense of ownership.”
“I have no idea where this program will lead because we are all so new into it and are getting more information than before, but the doors are wide open right now,” Jones said. “The doors are wide open for preventing a number of children from being victims and that’s what we hope for.”
The doors are open, the stage is set and the team awaits new members to strengthen its bonds and bring closer its goal.  

WCP 11.22.11

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