Schools struggle to tackle bullies

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH and NORMAN DRAPER , Star Tribune s taff writers
  • Updated: March 7, 2011 - 11:29 PM

Some districts are involving everyone from parents to bus drivers to fight a problem exacerbated by the Internet.

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Hazelden staff member Marty Harding listened as child-safety advocate Patty Wetterling addressed the sold-out summit on bullying on Monday in Minneapolis.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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When leaders at the middle school in the southeastern Minnesota community of Byron saw an increase in bullying, especially on school buses, they threw everything they had at the problem.

Bus drivers were taught how to spot bullying. High school kids came to school to talk to the younger students about it. Whether kids were being left out or given the silent treatment, students were told what to look for early on and that it was OK, not tattling, to share what they saw with an adult.

Tackling bullying from all sides works, according to national research shared Monday at an extraordinary summit of 400 Minnesota teachers, counselors, principals and law enforcement officers in Minneapolis.

It appears to have paid off in Byron. The number of fifth- through eighth-graders who reported being bullied has dropped to 24 percent this year, down from 64 percent in 2002, school officials said.

Monday's sold-out gathering reflects a heightened awareness of bullying, brought to a head last fall with local and national reports of bullying leading to suicides, and an urgency to deal with its new and more dangerous forms.

"The issue of bullying is just front and center now," said Sue Thomas of the Hazelden Foundation. "And a lot of schools are struggling about what to do."

Planners of the Minnesota Summit on Bullying had to find a bigger venue to host Monday's event. "We are quite overwhelmed by the response," said Joann Knuth of the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals. "It shows there's a great need out there."

The need stems from a belief, shared by everyone from local principals to national experts, that awareness about school bullying has ramped up in recent years, especially with the advent of cyber-bullying through text messages or Facebook.

"It's become a big issue," said national bullying prevention expert Marlene Snyder. People are beginning to "connect the dots about why this is important and how it impacts people, our economy and school systems."

On Thursday, President Obama is hosting an anti-bullying conference. Chaska Police Chief Scott Knight is among those invited to speak about local efforts to stand up to bullying.

'We need to trust each other'

One option is the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, an international program that Snyder and the local Hazelden Foundation help schools implement. It takes a schoolwide approach, in which prevention is taught to everyone connected to the school.

Snyder said schools should assess students' reports of bullying, get input from staff and parents, implement schoolwide programs, train all staff in intervention and dedicate classroom time to discuss bullying prevention.

At Breck School in Golden Valley, a committee of faculty, administrators and parents met last spring to tackle bullying. T-shirts were printed to promote respect. A poster in the shape of a mustang horse, the school mascot, was put up, inscribed with slogans such as "we need to trust each other" that all middle school students, faculty and some parents signed.

While bullying at Breck is relatively mild, middle school counselor Katy Pearson said it does happen.

That's the case, too, at elementary schools, which are seeing more cases of cyber-bullying each year. "It's younger and younger," said Jim Litwin, principal at St. Paul's Horace Mann Elementary, who attended Monday's summit to see how his school can start an anti-bullying program. "Kids always have problems getting along. You give a child a social media tool and they're not restricted ... it just opens up another world."

In southwest Minnesota, Marshall school leaders are also focusing their efforts this year on third- through fourth-graders.

Changing climate in schools

"We're seeing more of the exclusionary bullying," said Robert Walker, assistant principal of two Marshall elementary schools, which uses the Olweus program. The school kicked off its efforts with a schoolwide assembly in which teachers took the part of bullies, kids being bullied and bystanders doing nothing.

As a result of the anti-bullying drumbeat, "the number of reports [of bullying] we've gotten have really increased," Walker said. "This program is a climate changer."

Back in Byron, that effort is proving successful at the elementary and middle school. In the next few weeks, the high school will survey staff and the 550 students there with hopes to start a similar program. "There's a ton of cyber-bullying and that could be why we're having more of a problem," high school counselor Julie Senska said. "We just always have to adapt."

kelly.smith@startribune.com • 612-673-4141 norman.draper@startribune.com • 612-673-4547

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