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When prosecutor Victoria Powell looks at bullying, she doesn't see things in black and white. She sees pink.
Last fall, Powell told Elk River seventh-graders about two Canadian boys who encouraged 400 classmates to wear pink after a student was ridiculed for his pink shirt. The kids got Powell's message.
On Nov. 10, Elk River's VandenBerge Middle School resembled a sea of cotton candy, with students and faculty wearing pink shirts, headbands and armbands.
"You have a choice: You can do nothing or you can stand up for these kids," Powell, the driving force behind Sherburne County's Bullying Intervention Project, tells students.
She also tells them: "Treat each other with kindness or you may see me again -- in court."
Powell, Sherburne County's juvenile prosecutor, started the Bullying Intervention Project 10 years ago, after Sherburne County filed 69 school disorderly conduct petitions in 2001. The project -- which involves the Sherburne County attorney's office, local police and school faculty throughout the county -- strives to provide early intervention to students and parents as soon as a child starts to show bullying behavior. Nearly 1,000 students have been referred to the Sherburne County program over the past 10 years, Powell said.
Powell meets with school officials at the county government center in Elk River every six weeks to discuss the threats of cyber-bullying, verbal taunts or physical aggression, and with students during three to five visits to schools each year -- sometimes outside of Sherburne County.
In any setting, she is a forceful and animated presence. She commands attention with her commitment, enthusiasm and constantly moving hands. It isn't Powell's British accent that keeps students captivated; it's the message and strong sense of conviction.
Just days after Powell addressed classes in Mora, a student confronted a bully who was berating another student on a school bus.
"Knock it off!" the bystander warned the bully, a teacher told Powell.
And if the bullying persists, the threat of going to court through the Bullying Intervention Project is real, Powell warns.
Parents must meet, too
If a student has an incidence of bullying or disorderly conduct at school, the child and parent must meet with a representative of the county attorney's office. At that meeting, the child and parent learn about the effects of bullying and of services throughout the county.
Should there be a second instance of bullying, the student is usually charged with disorderly conduct, and again faces Powell -- but this time in court, where she is the prosecutor.
"It's the most proactive program I know and the model for others," said Sarah Marxhausen, assistant principal at Princeton Middle School.
"That program warned the bullies, 'If you cross the line, there will be consequences,'" said Big Lake High School Principal Bob Dockendorf.
The program's effectiveness can be measured in the steady decline of disorderly-conduct petitions filed by schools. Between 2002 and 2008, schools referred 433 students to the program. Of those, only 36 were repeat offenders -- or fewer than 10 percent, Powell said.
With the neighboring Anoka-Hennepin School District capturing national attention as it struggles with its own bullying problems, Powell's visionary project seems far ahead of its time. Or, maybe, just in time.
The project received a county achievement award from the Association of Minnesota Counties in 2008. Its influence stretches beyond Elk River. In Princeton, schools have adopted a curriculum that establishes class rules against bullying. Big Lake Middle School students are staging a pink-shirt day on Feb. 29. Over the past decade, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom has addressed 17,000 students, parents and school officials about bullying and other adolescent issues, said Dakota County spokeswoman Monica Jensen.
"We want kids and parents to know that bullying hurts the victims and the bullies," said Powell, a parent herself.
Seventy-five percent of students report they have been bullied at some time while in school, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime. The center reports that one in 12 students who stay home from school do so because they were afraid to go to school. And girls bully, too. Forty percent of victims were bullied by girls, the center reports.
'A great message'
Carrie Trosvik-Burk said she met Powell six years ago -- three weeks after her 12-year-old brother, Tom Trosvik, hanged himself inside the family barn in Ham Lake. Tom, an Anoka-Hennepin School District student, reached his breaking point after being bullied in school hallways and on the bus, his family said.
"When I met Victoria, I was captivated by her message, which wasn't really about bullying, but about getting and giving respect in a positive way," said Trosvik-Burk. Her family's nonprofit, BULLY Inc. (Building Understanding Love & Learning for Youth) was inspired by Powell, who has spoken at a BULLY fundraiser.
"Victoria's got a great message, a great presentation and she's very animated," Trosvik-Burk said. "It's hard not to pay attention when she speaks."
Before moving to Winnipeg as a youngster, Powell lived in Liverpool, England.
"School is supposed to be safe, but some of these children are afraid to go to school," Powell said.
"There's always been bullying, but now we're learning about cyberbullying," she said. "In the old days, we passed notes or waited for a photo to be developed.
"Now, kids pass hurtful texts or they're sexting and there's no time to consider the consequences.
"When I ask kids about their fears, they talk about heights, darkness, clowns," Powell said. "But school shouldn't be a fear."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419