September 5, 2008

Montgomery Schools Work to Prevent Bullying

By Anna L. Mallory [email protected] 381-8627

A Tennessee-based entertainer and educator hammered home his message to a group of elementary students, teachers and administrators Wednesday: Help prevent bullying.

Jay Banks, who teaches students to "STAMP Out Bullying" through an hourlong, interactive and comedic performance, spoke to a students from Shawsville and Elliston-Lafayette elementary schools who gathered at Eastern Montgomery High School.

He will visit other elementary schools throughout Montgomery County today and Friday to tout a message that the school system is taking seriously. It already has a bullying prevention program with a budget of close to $100,000.

Banks' Montgomery County stop, with a $4,300 price tag, is a kickoff of sorts for the county's program, Olweus Bullying Prevention.

"It's all about building that community where kids feel safe and where kids can tell someone if something is bothering them, someone they can trust," said Dollie Cottrill, principal at Price's Fork Elementary in Blacksburg.

Cottrill and 13 other county schools are pushing the Olweus method hard this year, with steps such as promoting rules against bullying behavior, teaching students what a bully is, rewarding students who exhibit good behavior and reinforcing the tools at home.

Students at Price's Fork will see Banks' presentation today. He is not affiliated with the Olweus program, but his message -- "Stay away from bullies. Tell someone. Avoid bad situations. Make friends. Project confidence" -- promotes the same thinking.

The acronym from his message -- STAMP -- gives students an easy- to-remember template for steering clear of bullies, while the delivery helps to get them excited, he said.

"If they laugh, they listen," Banks told those in attendance Wednesday. "If they listen, they learn."

Statistics show bullying behaviors go far beyond the classics of stolen lunch money and spit wads.

The U.S. Department of Justice says that 160,000 children miss school each day because they fear being bullied. Using a survey provided through the Olweus teachings, each spring Montgomery's schools will survey their students to find out the bullying climate there.

"It's all about the child's perspective," Cottrill said. "If you've got one child who feels like that, you know, somebody else is picking on him or her or not feeling secure and safe in their surroundings, that's too many."

The county school system does not track survey results, but rather they are listed within each school, said Rebecca Counts, who is serving as interim to the county director of the program. Some schools, such as Price's Fork, do not have enough data to show the program has worked.

However, their initial survey given two years ago shows the playgrounds, bathrooms and sometimes a teacher-supervised classroom as hot spots for bullying behavior, said Larry Elkins, who serves as head of the school's Bullying Prevention Committee. The committee is another facet of the Olweus implementation.

Virginia legislation prompted the adoption of the Olweus method countywide, Counts said. It requires school districts put an anti- bullying program in place, but some of the tools have been in place in schools for awhile, said Cottrill, who has taught at Price's Fork for 18 years.

"The program has allowed us maybe to understand why we were doing some of what we were doing, if that makes sense," she said.

To follow state rules, 14 elementary and middle schools in the county will implement, or continue to push, the Olweus program this school year. Most will be paid for through a $64,000 grant from the state's Department of Criminal Justice Services, with at least $30,000 in local money used. Some county schools began the program as long as five years ago.

The most recent grant, awarded this summer, is run through Montgomery County and the New River Valley Community services. It helped schools purchase books, CDs, curriculum and parent tool kits, as well as send teachers to trainings and conferences on bullying prevention.

"What it really reinforces is a classroom community," Elkins said.

Each school can implement the program to suit itself. At Price's Fork, teachers are taking classroom time to have frank discussions about bullying, and students are urged to open up about how they are treated and tell adults about inappropriate behavior.

In turn, they can learn positive behaviors, Elkins said.

In the class discussions, students can bring up what they've experienced, pushing on the playground, clique-like behaviors or even physical contact.

The key, Elkins said, is teaching them the differences and sticking to the same rules for everyone.

"Physical is part of it, but it's important to know that it doesn't have to be," he said. "It can be emotional, mental. There is a distinction, and I think students are smart enough to know the difference, we just need to show them what that is at first."

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