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District launches anti-bullying program



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October 19, 2011 - By Joe St. Henry

Review Editor

Bullying is about to get its butt-kicked in Lake Orion.

The school district, local education and civic organizations, as well as businesses have partnered to launch a district-wide anti-bullying program that will engage all students and the community.

Oakview Middle School began implementing the internationally recognized OLWEUS (O-va-is) anti-bulling program last year. Lake Orion High School and Pine Tree Elementary School are rolling it out this year. The plan is to have the district's two other middle schools and two additional elementary schools on board by the end of the 2012-2013 school year, with the rest of the schools soon after.

"Individual schools have discussed bullying with students for years," said Heidi Kast, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment. "But, this is a specific, research-based, proven program that will be administered consistently across the district.

Kast knows there will be skeptics out there who will question the effectiveness of such a program, some of whom may have legitimate concerns. But, she says if this program is administered correctly, it will make a difference.

"We're not naοve to think we're going to put a complete end to bullying," she said. "However, we have the opportunity to reduce such incidents and change the culture of our schools."

According to Associate High School Principal Chris Bell, a recent survey of students there indicated 15 percent have been bullied or mistreated in school more than once. It also pointed out 85 percent of the kids at the school – the "silent majority" he called them – have seen bullying behavior and do not like it, but do not know what to do to stop it.

Bell said the OLWEUS program focuses on proactively addressing bullying, by giving kids of all ages the tools and support system to work together.

"We're trying to change the culture of the school to encourage kids to do the right thing and be cool enough to be uncool," he said. "We want to empower the silent majority and let them know it's okay."

The bottom line: students need to know the school will not tolerate mistreatment of any student, Bell stressed.

Kast introduced the district's anti-bullying program to the Lake Orion School Board on Oct. 12. "Our district has the responsibility to keep our kids and schools safe," she said.

Sarah Perry, Oakview assistant principal, also spoke at the meeting and said the student survey conducted at her school indicated the areas where many bullying incidents typically occur, including the cafeteria, hallways and on buses. It also showed students at Oakview wanted to change the culture of bullying.

As the school rolled out the OLWEUS program, weekly meetings facilitated by high-schoolers – dubbed the "Bully Busters" – helped strengthen lines of communication between everyone in the building.

Kids learned what bullying is, what they can do to beat it and the program's four rules: do not bully, help others who are bullied, include others who may be excluded and inform adults of bullying situations.

"Just as important, the meetings addressed the importance of relationships, especially between students" Perry said. "The goal is to better understand each other and establish a sense of empathy."

Bully Buster senior Ashley Bartreau added, "Kids really aren't as different as they think they are. Once they start talking, they realize they actually have more in common than they think."

Bell said similar meetings to discuss bullying will take place at the high school. They are an offshoot of the high school's "Real Talk" students meetings.

"Kids realize they can ask questions and express their opinions to each other in this safe environment," he said.

Another key component of the program is helping kids, teachers and parents understand the "Bully Circle", which identifies the roles people play in such situations. These include the bully's henchmen, onlookers and defenders – those students who have the confidence to take a stand against the bully, Perry said.

"We want them to take the step over to be a defender," Bartreau added. "We try to act as role models and tell the younger kids it's okay – you won't be teased."

Perry said the older kids tell the younger students they are not tattling, but reporting the bullying incident.

Oakview seventh grader Emma Modock said since the launch of the anti-bullying program, "students understand bullying issues better, there are fewer incidents and more kids are making the right choice to do the right thing."

Carol Zoolkoski, an Oakview teacher, said from what he has experienced, the OLWEUS program tackles bullying, intimidation and exclusion head-on. It is a more pervasive approach to addressing these issues than what the school has taken in the past, he explained. In addition to posters and rules posted throughout the school, the regular meetings between kids make a difference.

"They foster real talk amongst themselves – how it feels to be standing there and getting bullied, or watching someone get bullied over and over," he said.

Pine Tree teacher Francie Hofer Robertson sees great potential for the anti-bullying program, which will officially commence there in early November.

"I hope that our students will feel empowered to stand up for themselves and others when they see negative acts occurring around them," she said. "It also will clarify things for me in terms of what bullying is and ways I can help when incidences are reported to me."

One of the key features of the OLWEUS program is that all areas of a school are included in the effort to stop bullying, added Brent Skiba, family school coordinator at Pine Tree and a member of the building's OLWEUS program steering committee.

The Lake Orion Education Foundation (LOEF) and Lake Orion Rotary Club are partnering with the district to implement the OLWEUS program. A portion of the funding is coming from the district's curriculum budget, plus LOEF is providing funds and the Rotary has joined the district in preparing a proposal for a grant, which was recently submitted. Kast said businesses, including Sagebrush Cantina and the local Pepsi distributor, also are providing funding.

"Our goal is to enhance the educational opportunities for our students and we can't think of a better way than by partnering with our schools to implement this program," said LOEF member Matt Phillips. "It needs money, time and the support of people willing to get involved."

Funding raised is being used to certify teachers (three this year – one each at the elementary, middle school and high school levels), pay for school materials and conduct mandatory yearly surveys of students at each school. Kast said she is meeting with other community organizations and businesses in the coming weeks to solicit additional funds.

She also reiterated that it will take a total community effort, including support and participation by parents, to alleviate bullying in Lake Orion. The key to securing parent buy-in will be regular and consistent communication, something the district has pledged to achieve through meetings and messages to parents on the status of the program.

"We want them speaking the same language at home about bullying that we are conveying in the schools," said Kast, who would like to have at least one parent participate in the OLWEUS training.

The Lake Orion Police Department also has offered its support to promote the anti-bullying effort. ""We want to help any way we can, for we know if bullying is reduced, then crime is reduced," said LOPD Chief Jerry Narsh at the school board meeting.

At the recent school board meeting, Superintendent Marion Ginopolis and all of the board members commended the work of Kast, school administrators and teacher volunteers to position the district to expand the OLWEUS program this fall.

They also noted it will take a total effort in Lake Orion to succeed.

"It takes a whole community to conquer bullying," board secretary Deborah Porter said.

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