After Winter Springs middle-school student Chris Penley recently took a pellet gun to school and was shot in the ensuing raid by police, reports came out, as they often do, that the 15-year-old was bullied. One 14-year-old classmate said, "You can poke him with a stick, and he won't talk."
The Penley case illustrated, again, that bullying isn't a benign prank. A report issued by the U.S. Department of Education in 2002, which studied 37 school shootings from 1974 to 2000, found 71 percent of the shooters were bullied. More recently a Cape Coral teen hanged himself after being the target of relentless online bullying.
Administrators at Orange County Public Schools take bullying very seriously. For three years, OCPS's Student Assistance and Family Empowerment (SAFE) office has run bully-prevention programs in select schools. While the program may sound like résumé polish for bureaucrats, it seems to work. Maybe. Three years into the programs at some schools, all stats point to more bullying going on. School officials say that's a good thing. We'll explain in a minute.
You can trace the beginning of Orange County's bully awareness to school board member Rick Roach. In 1997 he was a counselor for freshmen at Boone High School, where he ran across three ninth-graders who were being relentlessly teased. The emotional drain on the students was evident to Roach. When he informed the dean and the security officer, Roach was told that if he didn't see it happen himself, nobody could do anything about it. He contacted the Student Assistance and Family Empowerment office, and Marti White took up the project.
"There wasn't, and still isn't, a lot of information on preventing bullying," White says.
So she wrote her own curriculum. She and other SAFE workers set up a student ambassador program at Boone, where a group of students learned how to identify bullying and how to step in to stop it. The next year, voters elected Roach to the school board, and he started lobbying the schools to clamp down on bullying.
"This is not just part of growing up," Roach says. "It's not just kids being kids. Bullying is serious and it can have serious lifelong consequences."
In Orange County, there are two different paths taken by the SAFE office one for elementary and middle schools and one for high schools. The primary schools use a curriculum molded out of the SAFE's own writings and the Olweus Program (pronounced Ol-Vay-Us), an anti-bullying program created in Sweden. White will not go into a school to start a program unless she has what she calls "100 percent buy-in," meaning all teachers and staff members are sold on the idea.
"We have to have everyone, from the principal to the lunch lady ready to help," she says. "If some people are just OK about it, then they won't have their eyes open for bullying."
As soon as a school has given White the go-ahead, a group of the school's staff usually teachers, administrators and school helpers attend a three-day orientation. One of the tenets of the elementary and middle-school program is integration of anti-bully lessons into regular classroom teachings. Toward that end, the giant bulletin board inside the front door of Lakeville Elementary School is plastered with flowers decorated with peace symbols. A class created them while the teacher led a discussion on peacemaking and bullying. The school's teachers hold classroom meetings every week to discuss bully problems.
In high schools, the anti-bullying programs center on the formation of a crew of student ambassadors trained to recognize and combat bullying in the hallways.
The districtwide push is all about raising awareness among students. As White points out, bullying doesn't happen in front of teachers. It's in the cafeteria. It's in the bathroom. It's out of the sight of faculty.
"The more kids are aware of what bullying is, the better," says Carl Sousa, who heads up the bully-prevention program at Hunters Creek Elementary. "Simple teasing can really take a toll on a kid. We just want kids to know [bullying] when they see it, so they can at least try and stop it."
If awareness is the goal, then Orange County schools are achieving it. Every elementary and middle school that participates in SAFE's grant-funded program administers yearly surveys to the student body. It asks questions, such as, "How often have you been bullied at school in the past couple of months?" At Rolling Hills Elementary in 2004, the percentage of students who said they were bullied two to three times a month was 15.6 percent. In 2005, it was 23 percent. The increase, says White, is a positive step, because kids are learning to pick out bullying when it happens.
"We've got to get kids to identify it before we can get them to stop it," she says.
If national data trends are repeated here in Orange County, then year three of surveying will show a marked drop in the amount of bullying.
"We're getting more children who are reporting it, who recognize and want to stop it," says Lakeville principal Kim Stutsman. Sousa, at Hunters Creek, says the programs have brought the subject out in the open, and children are now better equipped to deal with bullies.
On one hot afternoon, White walks outside Pershing Elementary to an outlying mobile-home classroom. Inside is a room full of fifth-graders. Apparently, one student has been bullying some of the others, and a parent complained to the principal.
"My name is Mrs. White, and I was asked to come here today to talk to you about an issue going on at Pershing," she says standing at the front of the classroom. "Anyone know what I'm talking about?"
White points to a little girl with glasses. "Bullying," the kid says.
White walks the class through an exercise. She's going to spell out words, and the class is supposed to yell the word as fast as they can.
"M-O-P," she says.
"Mop!" yells back the class.
"What do you do at a green light?"
The class laughs at their obvious mistake. "See, that was collusion," says White. "Collusion is where you get all hyped up and go along with something because others are." Sometimes, she explains to the kids, collusion can be bullying. She asks for examples, and the class decides that laughing at someone who is the butt of a joke constitutes collusion.
"This is not the best way to do this," she says, as she walks out of the classroom on her way to another. "They need to be hit with this information over and over. But maybe after today, someone will recognize that what they thought of as teasing might actually be bullying."
If these programs are making a difference, why not have them in every school? That's a question Roach would love to have answered. In his time on the board, he's offered up numerous proposals to have bully-prevention programs in every school. Each time, the idea was met with a lukewarm response.
White, however, doesn't want to see a school mandate. She says one of the most important components of the program is the 100 percent buy-in.
"As soon as we start shoving this down schools' throats, it'll never work," she says. "They already have testing and other mandates they have to deal with. We need them wanting to have our program, not being forced into it."
White may lose the battle if Rep. Ellyn Bagdanoff (R-Fort Lauderdale) has her way. Bagdanoff has proposed legislation that would require schools to include more anti-bullying programs.
To date only 26 of the more than 130 elementary and middle schools in Orange County have a bully-prevention program. And according to Lakeville principal Stutsman, the schools that do have a program still have a long way to go.
"Even with a program in place, we have kids that are afraid," she says. "That speaks to how strong bullies are, how much fear they can put in kids."[email protected]