• Holy Cross School fourth-graders Stephen Bell and Kathryn Hayes participate in a Dec. 16 discussion about bullying. Through the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, students meet every week to talk about ways to combat bullying.

Schools implement new bullying prevention curriculum

By Mike Latona/Catholic Courier    |    01.17.2014


With numerous anti-bullying posters marking its halls, Holy Cross School in Rochester’s Charlotte neighborhood is out to make a clear statement.

That message is driven home inside the classrooms as well, through weekly discussions about bullying prevention.

On the morning of Dec. 16, Annmarie Missell's fourth-grade class was full of spirited banter as they discussed ways to treat people more kindly, noted the difference between bullying and teasing, and reviewed how to respond to a bullying incident either as a victim or bystander.

Such efforts at Holy Cross are outgrowths of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, which is being implemented in all diocesan schools during the 2013-14 school year. The initiative is taking place at the behest of first-year superintendent Anthony Cook, who considers Olweus the leading initiative available for reducing incidents of bullying and achieving stronger social awareness.

Cook said the Olweus approach blends in naturally with the faith- and values-based atmosphere of Catholic schools, emphasizing mutual love, respect, support and inclusiveness. Although he emphasized that "bullying has not been a prevalent issue in our schools," Cook and several principals interviewed for this story agreed that bullying can occur in just about any setting, and so must be addressed in Catholic schools as well as in public ones.

"It's human nature," Holy Cross Principal Mary Martell observed, noting, however, that this fact doesn't make bullying acceptable. Thus, she and other administrators said they welcome Olweus' contributions toward enhancing students' character development.

"It kind of prepares for the way you're going to talk to somebody in the real world," Cook said.

Speaking up

Focusing on four vital social environments -- the community, school, classroom and individual -- Olweus teaches staff, students of all grade levels and parents to be alert to possible bullying situations, intervene, report and follow up. The program is named after Dan Olweus, a Swedish psychologist whose research on bullying extends back to the early 1970s. It was launched in diocesan schools last summer with a goal of being fully implemented by Catholic Schools Week of 2014, which runs Jan. 26-Feb. 1.

Steps taken thus far have included training of school administrators and faculty; establishment of faculty teams; and completion of student surveys to help identify where, when and how bullying might be occurring in schools. The surveys produced valuable "hard data," according to Steve Oberst, principal of St Pius Tenth School in Chili.

Student discussions -- such as the one among Holy Cross' fourth-graders Dec. 16 -- also have begun at several schools. During that discussion as part of Olweus' focus on helping others, youngsters enthusiastically furnished ideas for "random acts of kindness."

"Hold the door open for people," Kiara Nkugwa suggested.

"You could help them carry stuff," Desire Kasinge said.

"You could visit a nursing home," Colin Bavibidila added.

The youths became more somber as they recalled incidents when they were subjected to or witnessed teasing. This was an important dialogue since one of Olweus' main thrusts is to distinguish teasing/kidding from bullying.

"It (bullying) has to be purposefully hurtful. It has to be repetitive or unwanted," Cook said. "Once a child tells another child they don’t like something and they continue to do it, that's bullying."

Bullying, according to the Olweus website, "is aggressive behavior that is intentional and that involves an imbalance of power. Most often, it is repeated over time." This behavior can be verbal, in the form of derogatory comments and name-calling; physical, such as hitting, kicking, shoving or spitting; or occur through social exclusion or isolation. It can be spreading lies and false rumors; damaging or taking possessions or money; or threatening or forcing the victim to do things. Bullying can be racial, sexual or technology-based in nature.

Olweus stresses that victims should report bullying to an adult, and that bystanders should do the same and also denounce the bullying behavior -- as opposed to joining in or remaining silent out of fear of getting involved, being labeled a tattler, and/or becoming a target of the bully as well.

"They hear adults say, 'Hey you've got to speak up.' I think more kids are speaking up against bullying than they ever have," said Joe Tobia, principal of All Saints Academy in Corning.

The effects of such measures can be notable. "Most kids will stop bullying within 10 seconds of someone telling them to stop," Cook said, adding that the more people who voice their disapproval, the less likely it is that the behavior will continue.

"When you isolate the bully, the bully will very easily crumble," Oberst agreed.

However, those engaging in bullying are themselves in need of support and guidance, Cook pointed out, noting that young people, in particular, may not even realize when they're bullying or "what effect it’s going to have on somebody else."

"We never label a kid a bully," Cook said. "We label the behavior they’re exhibiting, because behavior can be changed and it can be taught."

And just because somebody has bullied "doesn't mean they're a bad kid," Tobia added.

Awareness vital today

Tobia said these important points are much more likely to take root through the Olweus program because it's continuous, as opposed to a one-time presentation.

"The kids really want to talk about this stuff -- 'Well, this happened to me and this happened to me.' They want to talk about things that bothered them," he said. That's a departure from the past, when bullying "was a quiet thing -- you accepted it," he remarked.

However, Cook said, this lack of action-taking has in some cases produced tragic results as a result of bullying.

"Horrible things have happened -- kids taking their lives, school shootings," he said.

Oberst cited the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School -- where students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 peers, a teacher and themselves, reportedly in response to a history of being bullied -- as a turning point in bringing public discussion of bullying to the forefront.

Yet Oberst warned that "we still have a long way to go" -- adults included.

"There's still an attitude out there that it's just kids being kids," Oberst said, citing, for instance, athletic coaches who think bullying separates the weak from the strong and toughens up those who are deemed inferior.

Martell and Oberst added that vigilance in regard to bullying is even more vital in this era of social media, when messaging capability via texting, Facebook and the like have opened the door for cyberbullying -- attacking others via computer, often anonymously, with hurtful words that can be circulated to a wide audience and are virtually impossible to completely eradicate.

"Today the bully isn't just waiting around the corner after school. Now the bully can find you 24 hours a day," Martell observed.

"Even 15 years ago, children that were being picked on went home and had a safe spot," Oberst added. "The cyber world we're in today is a game-changer."

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