Back off, bullies: Anti-bullying program part of national trend |

Back off, bullies: Anti-bullying program part of national trend

Bullying’s tragic consequences have become all too clear in the headlines this year:

A Rutgers freshman jumped from a bridge in September after a secret sex tape of him was streamed online. Several Massachusetts high schoolers were charged for bullying so relentless that their 15-year-old classmate hanged herself in January.

Using part of a $6 million federal Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant, Nevada County schools are launching an aggressive, research-based campaign this fall to squelch bullying before it reaches a deadly pitch. It’s part of an anti-bullying effort among schools nationwide that’s showing results, in spite of recent high-profile incidents.

“Bullying is a daily wear on kids’ psyche and well-being,” said Marina Bernheimer, who is overseeing the various elements of the Safe Schools grant. “We don’t want to wait until there’s a tragedy.”

At the idyllic Chicago Park School, with an enrollment just over 100, students released yellow balloons in the school gym to symbolize their pledge not to bully.

Even in a tight-knit school, teasing and exclusion happen.

“Sometimes kids come to the office and say they don’t feel well. But I don’t think they’re really sick,” said Principal Dan Zeisler. “They’re just not fitting in.”

Each Friday since the program launched, junior high students at Chicago Park circle up their desks for small-group meetings. They discuss ways to turn bullying situations around, backing the victim instead of giving audience to the bully.

“You should be a defender,” one student said. “You should report it or stand up to a person.”

The meetings are one element of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, a multi-faceted approach to change the culture of a school.

Developed in the 1980s by Norwegian professor Dan Olweus (pronounced ol-VAY-iss), the program was commissioned by Norway’s minister of education after three teen suicides in the country were linked to bullying.

Results in Norway were dramatic: Most participating schools saw a 50 percent or greater reduction in the number of reported bullying incidents. They also saw reductions in self-reported vandalism, fighting, theft, alcohol use and truancy.

Studies in the U.S. show similar declines.

Olweus teaches adults how to intervene when they see what looks like bullying: First, tell the bully to stop. Next, support the victim. Finally, call out the bully and students who stood by passively, and impose consequences.

Teachers who take the training say they end up intervening more often in student interactions, even when it doesn’t look like outright bullying.

Much of the Olweus program’s success lies in its emphasis on adults – not children. Adults stay longer at a campus, while students graduate out of the school.

Training at Penn Valley elementary schools involved all staff – including teachers, bus drivers and custodians.

“We’re consistent about how we respond,” said Superintendent Debra Sandoval, who presides over Ready Springs and Pleasant Valley districts. “When things are consistent for kids, then change can happen.”

In the wake of school shootings such as the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, federal funding for anti-bullying programs has proliferated.

The investment appears to be working: A federal Department of Justice study released earlier this year shows a nationwide decrease in bullying. The number of students who reported being physically bullied over the past year dropped from 22 percent in 2003 to 15 percent in 2008, the study showed.

Bullying has been part of school since time began, but educators want students to know they don’t have to suffer in silence.

“We accept the fact that it’s part of life,” Zeisler said. “But we want to make them aware that their actions make a difference for others.”

To contact Staff Writer Michelle Rindels, e-mail or call (530) 477-4247.

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