Bullying prevention program begins at St. Bernard Academy

Ned Andrew Solomon

This article first appeared in the Tennessee Register.

St Bernard Academy

When you walk into Hannah Dwyer’s fourth level classroom at St. Bernard Academy, your eyes are immediately drawn to the bright red posters on the wall. In bold black letters they read, “Bullying is unBEARable,” punctuated underneath by a bear’s claw – these are the St. Bernard Academy Bears, after all.

The claw is followed by a set of four rules, which are the cornerstones of the school’s brand new anti-bullying initiative.

Although Dwyer is the school’s coordinator of that initiative – officially, the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program – the red posters are not unique to her room. They are strategically placed throughout the school, since this is, by design, a building-wide project.

“One of the reasons we selected this program in the first place was that there was a strong research base to it,” said Dwyer. “One of the things I found was that in a meta analysis of 93 different studies, the Olweus program, and those that are rooted in it, are found to be the most effective across the world.”

As coordinator, Dwyer keeps the program “on track,” but she relies heavily on a committee of folks who are spearheading its implementation. That team consists of one teacher from each of the four grade units: pre-K, kindergarten, grades 1-4, and grades 5-8; the Academy’s office manager; the head of school and assistant head of school, its director of studies; the after care director, and, perhaps most integral of all, the school’s sole guidance counselor, Seraphine Bitter.

This implementation committee had its two-day Olweus training a year ago this month. Originally, the idea was to bring the rest of the school faculty, student body and parents on board in January, but scheduled commitments and too many snow days put a kink in those plans.

“It just became too important to rush,” explained Dwyer. “So we said, ‘Let’s really do this the right way, and give it the time and attention it deserves by kicking it off the following school year.’ I think that has been such a good decision across the board.”

Improving supervision

However, instead of just waiting for the following year, the committee handed out a survey/questionnaire to the students in the spring. That instrument revealed how many students had been bullied, how many students are doing the bullying, how often it’s happening, and where it’s taking place on the Academy grounds.

In response to that data, teachers began providing more supervision in the problem areas and the number of incidents decreased.

Parents were trained in the Olweus program the Tuesday after Labor Day, immediately following the Academy’s Home and School Association meeting. Families were made aware that the training was going to take place that day, and, consequently, it was the best attended HSA meeting in recent memory.

The next day, on Sept. 7, the students were introduced to the initiative. Although in operation, officially, less than a month, committee members have already noticed a change in the air. “The kids are aware this program’s ‘out there,’ and are aware of what’s expected of them,” Bitter said. “I have noticed children embracing the fact that they’re going to look out for, and care for, one another.”

With Olweus, it’s not enough to train the faculty, the parents and the students. It is vital that individuals in all environments that come in contact with the children are involved. To that end, Bitter recently facilitated training for the school’s aftercare staff. “Because we want to be consistent in classes, outside of class, in the hallways, on sports teams, on the school bus, in after care, we have to teach everybody the same intervention,” said Bitter. “There need to be no holes in how we address what’s going on.”

Planned conversations

An essential component of the Olweus program is scheduled “class meetings” with the students, designed to help the youth process the program’s principle tenets, to ensure that a “no bullying” mindset is entrenched in the culture of the school.

Class Meetings take place once a week, and last anywhere from 30-50 minutes. It’s a time to “check in” with the kids in an “open forum” as the initiative moves forward, to see if they have any questions or concerns. Suggestions made by students in these meetings are written down, and the comments, reviewed by Bitter, have the potential to improve the program’s effectiveness.

Olweus defines bullying as an intentional, aggressive action that inflicts harm, either emotionally or physically, to a person who has trouble defending himself or herself. It almost always involves an imbalance of power, be it size, age or popularity, and is usually repeated. According to program materials, the effect that bullying has on children is similar to that of physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

However abusive the intention or the result, in the Olweus program bullying is not a “zero tolerance” offense.

“Because this is such a serious situation, we’re not just going to say, ‘You’re bullying, you’re out,’” said Dwyer. “Schools are really about educating the whole child, and if you just say we’re gonna get rid of you it doesn’t do anything to teach that child empathy. Lack of empathy is s major cause of bullying.”

When there is a situation that is identified as bullying, students who did the bullying behavior are required to complete a behavior reflection form, in order to meaningfully process the event. There are more serious consequences for repeat offenders, and follow-up interventions for the student who did the bullying, as well as the student who was bullied.

“We want to be careful about whatever emotional effects are in place,” said Bitter. “We want to follow up with that student so that student feels safe. Kids will tell you that they don’t report these situations because of a fear of retributions.”

Social media concerns

The program also addresses concerns about social media and technology, and their corresponding opportunities for kids to bully others in cyberspace and with portable electronic devices, often anonymously. Olweus provides a cyber bullying curriculum for grades four through eight.

“We at St. Bernard have a 24/7 policy,” said Dwyer. “So anything that happens off-campus at any time students can be disciplined for. We know that we definitely need to focus on that area, and we are still in the process of developing that.”

“We’re also talking to parents about changing the culture at home,” added Bitter, “where the computers are located and the amount of time that these students spend unsupervised. There’s no excuse for a child to be in their bedroom, alone, on a computer with the door shut at 11 at night. That leads to a lot of these issues.”

An ounce of prevention

If the Olweus program works at the Academy as it has in numerous other settings, St. Bernard’s students should feel safe coming to school and safe to bring up concerns with adults when, or even before, bullying issues surface. The Academy is investing a significant amount of money and staff time to create such an environment, not necessarily in response to current severe problems, but as insurance against being another school in the news where unrecognized or overlooked behaviors end in tragedy.

“And if we never have an incident of bullying all this year, I will not see the Olweus prevention program as being unnecessary, I’ll see it as being completely successful,” said Bitter. “Some people say, ‘We don’t need that; we don’t have that here.’ I say great, and hopefully we never do.”

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