Minnesota districts are scurrying to comply with the state’s new Safe and Supportive Schools Act, also known as the antibullying law, passed in early April. Under the law, districts have until July 1 to update their plans for dealing with bullying and bringing them up to the new state standards.

Many districts, however, already had programs in place to help combat bullying — and one south metro district, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, believes its efforts are making a difference.

In March, the district’s 2013 Minnesota Student Survey results were shared with the school board. The statewide survey is given to students in certain grades every three years, and it asks about various aspects of students’ lives, from drinking to college plans. Results showed that the number of Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan students bullied in the previous 30 days decreased by 42 percent for fifth-graders and 25 percent for ninth-graders from 2010 to 2013.

Other middle school surveys indicate significant gains in areas such as how safe students feel at school and whether they’ve been bullied, said Mark Parr, director of secondary education. “We think that it’s made a very big difference,” Parr said.

And Don Hayes, Rosemount Middle School counselor, shared more school-specific results. Between 2011-12 and 2012-13, the number of disciplinary referrals at Rosemount Middle School declined by 29 percent, and the number of bystanders who helped bullied kids increased by up to 30 percent, depending on the category of intervention.

“Bullying has been a phenomenon for a very long time,” Parr said, but the district is now doing “a much better job dealing with it.”

Creating a common language

Depending on grade level, there are several antibullying programs in place, and schools may tweak programs or add to them, Parr said.

At middle schools, a program called Olweus, among the more common programs used, has been phased in over the past three years. The program “has a very good reputation,” and the language it uses is “germane to the preteen mind,” Parr said.

“The thing about the Olweus program is it creates a common language for talking about bullying,” Parr said.

That includes a definition of what bullying is, as well what a bystander is and how they can intervene on a victim’s behalf. Reporting bullying is also strongly encouraged.

“With Olweus, the actions of the bystander are really huge,” Hayes said.

Many lessons are delivered during middle schools’ weekly 25-minute “flex time” periods by classroom teachers. The first year, lessons were designed by Olweus, but by the second year, counselors had created supplementary lessons and themes for each grade to focus on, Hayes said.

One Olweus lesson, for example, focuses on “hot spots” within the school where bullying is likely to occur, he said.

“I think what’s good about [the program] is everyone gets a voice,” Hayes said. “I think the thing that perpetuates any kind of bullying behavior is the secrecy of it.”

But the district isn’t alone in its efforts. While Hayes believes the program is making a difference and is optimistic about the future, “pretty much every district is doing good things.”

Building community

At elementary schools, the district uses a variety of bullying prevention programs and tools, said Julie Olson, director of elementary education. And before the programs begin, “I would say that it starts with each school laying the foundation for building community,” Olson said.

One of the programs, “Steps to Respect,” is an 11-week curriculum emphasizing empathy, recognizing emotions and building community, she said.

Like at the middle level, clarifying the definition of bullying — that it is unfair and one-sided, often happens more than once, and involves an imbalance of power — has helped a lot, she said.

Implementation of the program was funded through a grant. Now, school social workers teach most of the lessons. The program also uses literature and videos to “draw kids in so they develop that empathy,” she said.

The efforts appear to be working at the elementary level, too. From 2010 to 2011, the first year of implementation, surveys indicated a decrease in bullying and more reporting of problems. Minnesota Student Survey results also indicate the district is “on the right track,” she said.

“I do believe that over the past several years … [the antibullying programming] has positively resulted in students feeling safer and less bullied, and less witnessing of bullying,” she said.

Addressing the problem is “something that we’ll continue to work at,” Olson said. “It’s an important part of [students’] development and something that should not be neglected.”