Schools aim to be proactive to stop bullying

Published 5:00 pm Saturday, October 16, 2010

Neveln Principal Dewitt Schara drops what he’s doing anytime he hears about a bullying incident at his school, or so he says. To Schara, dealing with harassment and bullying is an important issue. The way he sees it, students won’t be able to learn anything if they’re having problems at school.

“If you’ve ever seen a child who’s devastated by bullying, it’s just, there’s nothing more awful,” Schara said.

While anti-bullying measures are now being debated nationwide, Austin Public Schools has dealt with bullying issues for several years. It’s done so by increasing classroom presentations district-wide, alongside other initiatives.

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Lea Oelske, who’s been a school counselor at Ellis Middle School for the past 15 years, said she’s seen a marked increase in actively preventing harassment and bullying. For one thing, the district has hired more support staff to help with student issues. When she first started, she was the only licensed counselor in Ellis, and she, the dean of students, the vice principal and the principal were the people taking care of bullying problems.

“We were only working in the react mode,” Oelske said. “We only had the ability to be reactive. We try to be proactive now.”

Nowadays, social workers and counselors make presentations several times throughout the year on the effects of bullying and the various scenarios students face everyday. In addition, students go through a six to 10 week lessons on bullying in ninth grade health, according to Katie Baskin, Austin High School’s Assistant Principal. Counselors develop awareness groups for kids based on their needs, as well.

Because bullying and harassment comes in so many forms, Oelske said students are taught what to do and who to go to based on what type of bullying and what situation students are facing. There’s no sure-fire way to stop or prevent it all of the time, according to Oelske.

Not that the district, and even the state, aren’t trying. An anti-bullying bill, sponsored by state Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis and Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, could be up for debate during the state Legislature’s upcoming special session on flood and tornado relief. It would force state school districts to implement policies on harassment barring harassment in any form, along with requiring school districts to better keep track of bullying and harassment instances and report them to the state.

Schools in the district already do that, according to Schara, especially this year as Neveln has separated bullying and harassment into different categories. While harassment is done against a group of people, bullying is defined as exerting power over another person, making them feel small. Schara said this year Neveln is keeping a much closer count on instances of bullying, although students’ disciplinary records have been kept for years and years before.

In order to combat bullying within Neveln, Schara said several initiatives were in place, such as the creation of the Peace Patrol, a group of fifth graders which walk the halls before school helping students out and reporting bullying. Students have also made their own positive guidance posters, which let each other know the right and wrong ways to act around others. According to Schara, students are much more invested in these behaviors when they’ve made these posters and can see their work hanging around the school, as opposed to the school buying similar posters from an outside entity.

Austin High School does much of the same sort of activities, with Chemical Health Action Initiative activities like Friday night parties at AHS after football games and intramural leagues for activities like Pin Guard on Sunday nights. Although CHAI deals with chemical health in schools, it promotes the same sort of messages that counselors in classrooms provide about not bullying and being inclusive to others, ultimately making kids feel more welcome in school.

“We want this place to be safe,” Baskin said. “Every student deserves the right to come here and feel safe.”