Middle school takes steps toward eliminating bullying

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Bullying has been seen in real life, on television and in films. People may like to see the underdog rise against his or her instigators, but retaliation such as that seen in the violent killings at Columbine High School shows that bullying continues to be out of control — along with the retaliation.

In the last several years, there’s been a focus on attempting to put an end to bullying at Punxsutawney Area Middle School, which was visited by the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, a program for explaining to students what’s behind bullying and how to end it.

Chris Smith, a seventh-grade English teacher, said since the deaths at Columbine High School, young people are becoming more violent in their retaliation against bullies.

“Now we have cyber-bullying that is taking place over the Internet on Facebook, MySpace and through texting on cell phones,” she said, while fourth-grade teacher Billie Sheesley said that even though bullying has been going on for generations, educators continue to teach everyone that it’s not acceptable.

“Kids have to be able to come to school and feel safe,” she said. “If they don’t feel safe and they don’t feel like they’re secure, they’re going to worry about what is coming next when they go out in the hall, or when they go home on the bus.”

John Snyder, a fifth-grade teacher, said students really need their basic needs met before teachers can reach them educationally.

PAMS Principal Richard Britten said that it does expand beyond bullying.

“However, bullying is a good place for us to start,” he said, adding that fifth, sixth and seventh grades are the worst for bullying.

PAMS Assistant Principal Michael Guidice said the presence is there, but how it’s done depends on how one views it.

“Someone in seventh grade might see it as spreading a rumor through cyber bullying, whereas a fourth-grader might be excluded from participating in an activity such as, ‘You can’t play football with us today,’” he said.

Britten said with exclusion, there’s a difference between the male and female bullying, while Smith said boys are more physical in their bullying.

“In many cases, it will be physical, but with girls, it has more to do with rumors and social exclusions,” she said. “That’s the other thing: Because it’s always been that way doesn’t mean it has to be like that. We have to show the kids who are bullied that we care.”

Britten said if a kid who acts like a bully in school is not treated, he or she will continue to be a bully throughout adult life.

“We have to teach them through example that we care if they’re a bully,” Smith said, adding that they have to care about it, too, or it just becomes an easy habit.

Smith said that in some cases, a bully may or may not realize his or her behavior is improper.

“We have to educate them to make them aware that what they’re doing just isn’t acceptable,” she said. “If anything else, by what we’ve done, our kids are becoming more aware of bullying. Somebody will do something, and someone will say, ‘That’s bullying behavior.’”

PAMS recently held a kickoff for the Olweus Bullying program for sixth- and seventh-graders. It is a comprehensive, school-wide program designed and evaluated for use in elementary, middle or junior high schools. 

The program’s goals are to reduce and prevent bullying problems among students and to improve peer relations at school.

The program has been found to reduce bullying among children, improve the social climate of classrooms, and reduce related antisocial behaviors, such as vandalism and truancy. 

“Students who attended the program made anti-bullying posters to be placed around the school building,” Sheesley said. “They wanted to do more, and it was a little girl who herself started out as a bully. It was a big turnaround for her, then she was one of the ones that made the signs.”

Snyder said young people may see bullying at home, on television or around friends, adding, “It almost becomes an acceptable form until we open it up to them that this is unacceptable.”

According to Guidice, the Internet and television have desensitized many youngsters to bullying.

“They see it portrayed in videos and movies, and they think that it must be OK, then. It’s our job to remind them that it’s not OK,” he said.

Sheesly said different videos from the Olweus program point out several things that students are doing at PAMS, in hopes of illustrating awareness or perhaps allowing them to catch their own behavior.

Smith said while creating an awareness of bullying is one thing, there is also creating awareness of those who are being bullied.

“We are trying to focus on the bystanders, to try and get them involved,” she said. “We want them to stand up and say, ‘Sorry, you can’t do that, it’s not right. Now we’re seeing that a bystander who’s not being bullied will say, ‘Knock it off.’ That’s something that we really need.”

“The kids are starting to take ownership; this is their school and they want it to be safe too,” Sheesley said. “The last part of the anti-bullying pledge is extremely important: ‘If we know that somebody is being bullied, we will tell an adult at school and an adult at home.’ We know it’s not going to happen overnight.”

An anti-bullying theme last year was “Stomp out Bullying.” This year, it’s been “Mix it Up at Lunch,” when students must sit with people they don’t know.

“At first, there was a lot of complaining, but I told them it was only for 30 minutes,” Smith said. “When it started, it was a big deal. Now, it’s OK and we hold one every nine weeks.”

Smith said because the staff can’t see everything, that’s why it’s important to have bystanders involved.

“If they’re going down to related arts, there aren’t any teachers in their classrooms to monitor the behaviors in the halls,” she said. “We don’t know about that, but that’s why we have the surveillance cameras.”

Guidice said there’s no profile of a student who could be bullied.

“Some maybe more susceptible than others, but I think every student is a candidate for bullying,” he said. “Even the bigger, stronger kids will be made fun of for the way that they dress, not being the brightest or for being so big.”

Snyder said bullies can exploit a weakness in anybody, and Smith added that even the most popular kids, at some point in their lives, have been called a name or told something that hurt them.

“You don’t think that the popular kids have been bullied,” she said.

Guidice said as the administrator who handles the discipline at the middle school, he’s seen a difference in how bullying is perceived.

“I don’t have to explain it as much as I did last year,” he said. “If somebody does somebody wrong, and they come into my office, usually by the end of our conversation, that student admits that they had done something wrong.”