The Bully Factor 

A new anti-bullying program aims to teach elementary students to stop being so mean.

Still, many kids today say they're more afraid than ever to go to school. It could be because a bully is bothering them. Ninety percent of fourth- through eighth-graders report being victims of bullies. Unlike the incidence of school violence, bullying is on the rise.

In the report, 9 percent of high-school students surveyed said they had been threatened or attacked with a weapon last year, a slight increase from two years ago. Likewise there was a 3 percent rise in the number of pupils who reported being bullied repeatedly.

In another report last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it was determined that 7 percent of students miss school at least once a month because they feel intimidated by some form of bullying; half of those surveyed said they were picked on once a week.

Hawkish bullies who prey on kids are nothing new. But increasingly, the way schools are treating their behavior is. Just as marijuana has been called a "gateway" drug to other illegal drugs, bullying is being viewed as a genesis of menacing behavior that could backfire. Columbine is being cited as proof.

Consequently, attempts to identify bullies and where they practice their meanness — hallways, cafeterias, classrooms — have started targeting children at a younger age. So much so that elementary schools are adopting "Bullying Prevention Programs."

In February, Richmond Public Schools plans to introduce its version of the program to two elementary schools — Blackwell and Fairfield. The effort is a collaboration between the school system and the city's Human Services Commission, which sought and received a $26,000 grant from the Gov. Mark Warner's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities to cover the costs.

Primarily, the anti-bullying initiative is an awareness campaign, says Jennifer Swinson, event coordinator with the Human Services Commission. "We're trying to send the message that violence on any level won't be tolerated."

Or, administrators seem to be saying, behavior that seems to foreshadow it.

And that includes a broad array of behavior, according to bullying prevention materials. They define bullying as whenever a student or several students say mean and hurtful things to other students, ignore or exclude students, act out aggressively toward others. This includes hitting, kicking, pushing, locking others in rooms, shoving them around or telling lies, spreading false rumors or purposefully committing any hurtful act against other students.

Do bullying-prevention programs go too far? Schools say no.

The anti-bullying program is multiphased. In a few weeks, a 39-question survey will be handed out to all third-graders at Blackwell and Fairfield elementary schools. These two schools were targeted for the program because of their high incidence rates of violence, their location in high-crime areas and the economic status of most of the kids. (In both schools, 95 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches.)

Because the questionnaire allows the students to complete them anonymously, teachers, administrators and counselors are confident that the answers will pin down notable bullying information — who the bullies are, where they operate and how often they act out. The second phase will be to assess the surveys and implement strict guidelines for behavior, Swinson says.

Lastly, students, parents and teachers will work collectively to promote the anti-bullying message during things like school assemblies, administrative retreats and parent-teacher meetings.

Already the program has been successful at the middle-school level, says Larry Everette, a specialist with Richmond Public Schools Departmant of Safe and Nurturing Schools. Two years ago, a similar initiative helped identify and prevent bullying at Chandler and Elkhardt Middle schools. Today, the program is part of the annual curriculum and dialogue at all 10 of the city's public middle schools.

The bullying-prevention approach has more to do with making kids, teachers and parents aware of how and why threatening behavior starts than it does with dealing with its consequences, Everette points out. It's why the survey is key. And he says response to the survey was better than expected and produced interesting results. "The kids took it really seriously, and many of them realized that what they thought was teasing is actually intimidating," he says.

For Swinson, the next few days are being spent in anticipation. She's been working for more than a year to get the program in place in elementary schools in Richmond. She hopes it proves as valuable there as in middle schools, valuable enough to expand next year to all the city's elementary schools.

Elementary school is the time when kids start to internalize feelings they somehow can't express, she says. It's why it's important to reach out to them then. And Swinson says she knows the results could take some time. "Three years down the road we may begin to see a difference and a big reduction in violence," she says. "We need to keep on reinforcing in kids this idea: We're not going to push, we're not going to tease — anymore."


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