10/28/09 — Norwayne giving students tools to stand against bullies

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Norwayne giving students tools to stand against bullies

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 28, 2009 1:46 PM

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Norwayne Middle School Principal Mario Re, center, speaks recently to a group of seventh-graders about ways to handle bullying. At left is teacher Pam Lipcsak.

From the time children start school, bullying takes on different forms -- teasing, picking on others who are different, even escalating into threats or physical violence.

Nationwide, it has soared to epidemic proportions, and has been blamed as part of the root problem in such incidents as Columbine and Virginia Tech.

Local educators have grown increasingly aware of the potential problem, and the importance of early prevention.

"It's not just the big stuff," said Jesi Knowles-Brock, an eighth-grade English/language arts teacher at Norwayne Middle School.

It typically plays out in smaller ways, she said -- stealing lunch, name-calling, altercations in the restrooms.

"We see it on the sidewalks in the transfer of classrooms -- trying to nudge people on the sidewalk, that's probably more of what we see than anything," said Lorrie Kester, eighth-grade math teacher.

"It starts out light-hearted, I'm sure, but it turns into hurt feelings," said Stacy Shaver, eighth-grade language arts teacher.

And because it can be subtle, educators have a tough time enforcing rules.

Oftentimes, the main reason a child hates going to school is not because of the work but because someone is picking on them, the educators said.

"There's always been a bullying problem in middle school," says Norwayne Middle School Principal Mario Re. "Research shows that's where it peaks. .... Just talking with some of the teachers, we feel that the worst thing. We hate to see kids upset, in this office crying."

So as another new school year started, Re found himself armed with the latest batch of posters on the topic. But instead of simply taping them up around the hallways, he decided to put the matter up for discussion.

"My intent was to get each team of students -- there are about 80 kids per team -- in the media center at lunch and talk, not with me as principal, but just talk about how kids pick on them," he said. "I was in there not having anything scheduled or planned out. It evolved into hour-and-a-half sessions."

Perhaps because for many students, it provided an opportunity to see others shared similar experiences and feelings.

"They saw that they were not alone," Ms. Kester said. "By having the 90 in there, they saw a massive number that wanted it shut down."

"We saw some very emotional kids, a lot of empathy," said Rhonda Nichols, media coordinator.

Even some of the teachers were affected by the object lessons, Re said, "because it brought back things from when they were young."

The rationale was simple, the principal said -- empower students to tackle the problem.

"The adults aren't going to be able to solve the bullying problem. Kids are ultimately going to have to defend themselves," he said.

So why not give them the tools to do so?

Part of the dialogue with the students turned into a lesson on self-esteem.

Re handed out index cards for students to write down one or two good things about themselves. Then the cards were passed around for others to likewise write down affirmations.

"They need to know that they have something positive to give back to others," said Tony Blair, eight-grade science and social studies teacher. "I think that was very important and it was eye-opening for a lot of them ... because they're so pre-programmed to think negatively."

In addition to bolstering morale, Re emphasized the importance of treating others fairly, equally -- no matter the race or social group.

"Nobody in the cafeteria should ever sit by themselves," he said. "We encourage them to go over or invite a kid to sit with them."

In some respects, it's an antidote to bullying. Before anything can escalate into resentment or payback, the aim is to isolate the bad behavior, teach the victims to stand up for themselves.

"If somebody's picking on you, you can't tell on them in the middle of class," Re said. "If you have confidence in yourself, you won't be bullied.

"We encourage the student to go home at night, write a note about who's picking on you -- anonymously -- as many details as you can. I will call up the kids and talk to them."

Several have already taken advantage of the "out," Re said, effective because it gives them a voice and the assurance that there is a solution to the problem.

"What I'm hoping for is that kids will stand up for themselves," he said. "One of the teachers commented that they like the fact that I'm giving them words to say."

Joseph Arunski, now an eighth-grader, buys into the confidence strategy.

"Stand up for yourself, stand up for what you believe in, don't worry about what anybody else thinks of you," he said.

But it wasn't always that way for him, he admits.

"When we got to (middle) school, the different cliques per se, if you don't fit into that, people are going to make fun of you," he said. "You have to do your best to let it not bother you.

"I dealt with it in elementary school, pretty much my whole life. I do my best not to let it bother me." Fifth grade was probably the hardest, being the transition to middle school, said eighth-grader Brandon Yelverton.

"Probably the hardest thing or the thing that makes middle schools hardest is individuality ... not realizing that being yourself makes you cool, " said classmate Myra Waheed.

The "tween years" are especially challenging, she noted.

"Figuring out middle school -- it's hard to figure out what you believe in, what's the truth. Finding what you believe in is key to middle school," she said.

The students agreed the exercise with the principal was beneficial.

"For what he did teaching us stuff about bullying, it really helped me a lot," said Yesenia Juarez. "I think it taught all of us a lesson."

"I guess you kind of took from it, you need to have your own voice and don't let other people intimidate you," added Mandy Dunn, an eighth-grader.

Of course, the upperclassmen at the school have a bit of an advantage, having grown into their position at the school.

"I won't say that it's completely different, but I would say that over the years it has gotten better because, I mean, once you first come in to middle school, you're in sixth grade, you're the underdog," Joseph said. "Once you go through the grades, get to know people better, it's a lot easier. Instead of just trying to go through, you're going to meet friends. You're going to want people to hang out with.

"You just have gotta do your best to get through it."

What about next year, though, when the eighth-graders start all over again in high school?

"I think it's going to be half and half -- having more confidence in ourselves, taking it (with us) to high school, not letting other people bother us," said Mandy.

"We'll just have to wait and see," Myra added.

Meanwhile, the program will continue throughout the school year, with teachers playing an instrumental role.

"I have told the teachers, if you see a kid stand up for somebody or defend somebody, you need to glorify those kids," Re said. "On the opposite side, we're going to be real harsh, stand behind what we're saying."

In just a few short weeks, there's already a more positive atmosphere at the school, several said.

"This opportunity was really about changing the definition," Ms. Shaver said. "We have been doing it for years, and have been able to stop some of the big things. But this is starting to change the definition of things and the mindset."

"I think from the kids' perspective, they saw this as a different type of program, with support from the top down," Ms. Kester said.