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By Marc Lutz
Wrangell Sentinel 

Schools want to include community to help prevent bullying


November 2, 2022 | View PDF

Name calling. Spreading rumors. Shoving, tripping. Excluding.

Those are just a few of the ways bullying can be perpetrated, and staff at Wrangell schools are working to prevent it and the damage and lasting trauma that can stem from it.

About 20% of students ages 12 through 18 across the country reported being bullied, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ website. Of those students, 56% said they believed the bully “had the ability to influence other students’ perception of them.” Fifty percent “had more social influence”; 40%“were physically stronger or larger”; and 31% “had more money.”

The approach that Wrangell high school and middle school principal Bob Burkhart, and schools’ counselor Dr. Julie Williams are taking is one of community involvement.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” Burkhart said. “That’s an old adage, but it’s true, and in a place like this, it’s very true.”

Burkhart said he and Williams, along with staff and teachers have all been involved in taking “every opportunity to be out front and upfront with our students” about anti-bullying and working together.

One of the keys to stopping and preventing bullying is recognizing it as a witness and as someone who is being bullied, and knowing what to do from a disciplinary standpoint.

“If we can’t see it, no matter what age I am or what position I hold in the school, if I don’t recognize it, I can’t do anything to take a stand or say something or somehow help the situation get better or help the person that might be the victim,” Burkhart said.

So, what is bullying?

Simply defined, it is unwanted aggressive behavior or a perceived power imbalance that is likely to repeat if not interrupted. What leads a person to being a bully can tend to be a little more complex.

“It varies. It can be watching bullying and saying, ‘That works for them, and I can do that too,’” said John DeRuyter, a clinical psychologist based in Wrangell. “It can be the result of being bullied, then bullying others gives them the release from what they’ve experienced. It can be, frankly, watching bullying at home, being bullied at home or in some other venue, some other situation.”

DeRuyter said bullying comes down to a cost-versus-value equation, with those doing the bullying getting more from the experience than it costs them. That equation motivates every situation in life, he said, as we weigh the pros and cons of each decision.

The cost-value equation can give insight into how to fix bullying.

“We’ll do what we’re rewarded for,” DeRuyter said, even if it’s the bully feeling like the act gives him or her a sense of power that’s otherwise lacking. The response, he said, could be met one of three possible ways: Positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement or consequence.

Positive reinforcement is the most positive response. If a child stops bullying behavior, it’s followed up with a positive response, “’Good job! You didn’t bully,’” DeRuyter said as an example.

When it comes to negative reinforcement for bad behavior, “The adults in charge need to shut it off,” he said. “’Knock it off. You’re done. Stop it. You don’t get to be benefited by what you’re doing.’”

Consequence is the least effective of the three responses as they tend not to have lasting effects, DeRuyter said.

Burkhart said he and Williams have been researching possible programs to use, the most popular of which is the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, which most simply refer to as OBPP.

After years of research, Dr. Dan Olweus, a Swedish-Norwegian research professor of psychology, in the 1980s implemented the OBPP based on four key principles: Adults in a school setting should show warmth and positive interest and get involved in student’s lives, they should set firm limits on unacceptable behavior, they should consistently use negative consequences that are neither hostile or physical when rules are broken, and they should be positive role models and show authority.

The program also sets forth four rules: “1. We will not bully others; 2. We will try to help students who are bullied; 3. We will try to include students who are left out; 4. If we know that somebody is being bullied, we will tell an adult at school and an adult at home.”

Much of that behavior comes from modeling by adults, whether in the school, at home or the community at large, Williams said. She, too, used the adage of “It takes a village to raise a child.”

“If you don’t want kids to spend their time not focused on education, don’t model it,” she said. “If you want to have kids that get along with each other and don’t feel like they need to ostracize each other, don’t do it. … They pick it up. Normal doesn’t just pertain to these walls where we have kids six to eight hours a day. They pick up normal everywhere they go, so we need to make sure as a community that we’re not modeling those unhealthy behaviors and tendencies to ostracize each other.”

Burkhart said the OBPP is delivered by a trainer, one of which is based in Anchorage. The cost to the school district would be about $6,000, which would include an assessment of the schools and community to see what stage of bullying exists. With that assessment, school staff, students and community leaders would go through a training.

“It would involve everybody to once more put the emphasis on respect instead of what bullying is and how do we prevent it, how do we stop it, how do we recognize it and the steps we take to eliminate it when we see it,” Burkhart said. He is currently working on finding funds through grants and any other available sources to pay for a program once they’ve settled on one, of which OBPP is the strongest contender.

When the program was first used in Norway in 1983, reports of bullying and antisocial behaviors dropped by 50%. In the mid-1990s, OBPP was used in South Carolina schools, in which large reductions in school bullying were reported after one year.

Williams said there is also an emphasis on redirecting focus and setting up students for success.

“In a public school setting, you focus a lot on education and teamwork, and then really establishing what norms you want to have in your community,” she said. “What do you want to be normal? How do you define that? Making sure that the messaging of that and the interactions of that are consistent. What adults model, and what kids are allowed or initiate, really becomes your cultural norms.”


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