Taking a stand against bullying

By Dick Mason, The Observer February 06, 2013 02:10 pm

La Grande Middle School students move through the halls of the school as physical education teacher Doug Schow looks on. Educators in the district have been working before the Jadin Bell tragedy to reduce bullying. Programs have been in place in the school district to address bullying for years at all of the districtís schools. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer
La Grande Middle School students move through the halls of the school as physical education teacher Doug Schow looks on. Educators in the district have been working before the Jadin Bell tragedy to reduce bullying. Programs have been in place in the school district to address bullying for years at all of the districtís schools. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer

by DICK MASON / The Observer 

La Grande School District has been actively engaged in preventing bullying for years 

Bullying has become a hot discussion topic locally following the death of La Grande High School sophomore Jadin Bell.

The popular LHS student died Sunday in a Portland hospital from injuries suffered during a Jan. 19 suicide attempt. Bell’s family believes he committed suicide because he was bullied, according to Bud Hill of La Grande. Hill is a close friend and spokesman for the Bell family. 

Bell attempted suicide about 1-1/2 years after announcing he was gay and likely made himself a target of bullying when he became openly gay, the family said.

“Jadin was gay and proud that he was gay,” Hill said. “The family is quite positive that he was being bullied because he was gay.”

Bell said he is starting a foundation aimed at preventing bullying.

The bullying issue Hill is addressing is causing people to ask what the La Grande School District is doing to prevent it. The answer is a substantial one.

Educators in the district have been working before the Jadin Bell tragedy to reduce bullying. Programs have been in place in the school district to address bullying for years at all of the district’s schools.

“We have been actively engaged in trying to prevent bullying for some time,” said La Grande School District Superintendent Larry Glaze. “This is not new.”

The superintendent believes that bullying is pervasive throughout schools in the United States.

“It is a societal problem. We are not immune to the issues of hazing or bullying,” Glaze  said. “We don’t think we are alone in this challenge.”

LHS Spanish teacher Anne March is helping lead the challenge of tackling this issue. March is leading and coordinating a program aimed at showing students how to prevent bullying. It is based on a curriculum provided by the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports in the Schools program, one available through the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education.

One focus of the program is showing students what they can do to stop bullying when they see it. Students are taught to say things which get a firm point across, without being personally demeaning to the point they lower themselves to the level of the bully.

Standing up for someone being bullied can have a lasting impact on the individual harassing another student, March said. 

“You may send a message which will last for years when you speak up on behalf of a victim of harassment. It can be very powerful,” March said.

March said when bystanders speak up for victims they are telling the offending people where the larger community stands on bullying.

“Bystanders who speak up are educating,” March said.  

 Bystanders who do nothing are condoning bullying.

“They are showing that the community believes  it is acceptable and that (the victims) need to learn to live with bad behavior,” March said.

At La Grande Middle School students are taught about ways to address bullying through a nationally used program titled “Character Education” which LMS started using about five years ago. Students receive  character education instruction each Wednesday during their advisory classes. They learn about empathy, how to be a good friend, decision making and conflict resolution.

LMS Principal Kyle McKinney said that such skills are best learned if presented regularly to students during short segments. This is more effective than holding all school assemblies with a dynamic speaker several times a year to discuss character development. The information presented at such programs is often quickly forgotten.

“They make you feel good but are not long lasting,” McKinney said. “Repetitive, regular presentations are more effective.”

McKinney said that all reports of bullying at LMS are taken seriously.

“We do not have any tolerance for bullying. We follow through with discipline measures,” he said.

When McKinney receives a report of a student harassing someone, he will not call the alleged bully into his office because this may make the individual suspect that his victim reported him. Instead, McKinney said he will watch the bully when around the student he has been reported to be harassing. 

“I try to catch it happening,” McKinney said.

 McKinney, after spotting a bully in the act, will never tell the student that he had been reported.

Schools can only police what happens in its halls and on school grounds, McKinney said, which doesn’t address cyber bullying. Students involved regularly harass others on social media sites, such as Facebook, or through text messages and emails. Most of this is done outside school. 

“Schools can’t control this,’’ McKinney said.

The principal advises students who are being cyber bullied to take simple measures to block bullies from their phones and Facebook pages.

McKinney said Mondays are often challenging for his staff because of cyber bullying which has taken place over the weekend. Students who have been harassed over the weekend find themselves face to face with their harassers on Monday, creating tense confrontations.

“We spend an enormous amount of time with cyber bullying issues on Mondays,’’ McKinney said.

McKinney believes bullying could be significantly reduced if more parents would focus more on teaching their children about empathy, friendship and tolerance.

“This is a societal issue,’’ McKinney said.

The portion of the Character Education curriculum now being used at LMS is Film Clips in Character Education. The program is taught by teachers under the direction of counselor Neesha Grant. As the name implies, a big part of it involves film clips. Students are shown brief segments from movies involving situations such as bullying and then are asked to discuss and write their impressions in a journal. A one-minute segment from the 1986 movie “Hoot” features a new student at a Florida school, who is planning to save the environment from a harmful building development. The boy is unable to move forward, though, until he confronts a girl who has been bullying him. He talks to the girl in the clip. 

LMS students were asked if they agreed with how the boy confronted the bully and explain their reasoning in a class discussion and in their journals. Grant said the film clips are meant to spark discussion and reflective writing.

“Bullying is when one or more people repeatedly harm, harass, intimidate or exclude others. Bullying is unfair and one-sided,” said Grant, quoting a definition provided by Steps to Respect, a national anti bullying program. 

Grant said students sometimes report they are being bullied but then learn that the problem involves a dispute, not one-sided harassment.

“When it is back and forth I teach them conflict resolution skills,” Grant said.

At the grade school level, the Steps to Respect and Second Steps programs are in place throughout the district to help prevent bullying. The programs are research based and created by the Committee for Children. 

Steps to Respect and Second Steps teach students how to be assertive and to stand up to bullies. Students also are told of the importance of being confident and using words which are clear when taking on bullies. Bystanders are shown how to best stand up for fellow students who are being harassed, said Sean White, a counselor at Greenwood Elementary.

The La Grande School District has been addressing bullying issues with curriculum programs at the grade school level for at least 15 years, said Linda Carlsen, a Central counselor. Carlsen oversees anti-bullying eduction at Central.     

Carlsen led a special month-long program aimed at making Central a “Bully-Proof Zone” last year. The program culminated with an anti-bullying skit at a school assembly. The skit, written by Carlsen, “Trash Talking,’’ featured teachers and staff members. The characters portrayed children involved in bullying. The victim was ridiculed for the clothes she wore. The issue was successfully addressed when children played by actual Central students reported the bullying to school officials. 

“They went from being bystanders to reporters,’’ Carlsen said.   

Carlsen is focusing on being proactive in her work against bullying. 

“We are teaching students to be a buddy, not a bully.’’

The counselor believes that the anti-bullying programs Central has had over the past 15 years have had a positive impact.

“They have helped students develop a better understanding of bullying and created a safer environment,” she said.