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Stop Bullies in Their Tracks

Springfield church hosts seminar on bullying prevention, including Olweus method.

This year, a handful of Fairfax County schools will begin using a method of stopping and preventing bullying that was developed decades ago in Scandinavia. The Olweus method, first implemented in Norway in 1983, does away with some traditional approaches to stopping peer harassment while reinforcing others.

Bullying prevention was the subject of a Wednesday, July 11 seminar at the Prince of Peace church and school in Springfield. About 50 representatives from a number of schools and other youth-oriented organizations across the county showed up to hear a presentation by Danielle Higginbotham, prevention specialist with the Community Services Board, and Debbie Lane, the former principal of Oak View Elementary School and incoming principal at Rolling Valley Elementary. Lane wrote her doctoral dissertation on bullying prevention and is championing the effort to bring the Olweus method into county schools. Higginbotham helps to run the Springfield Franconia Family Resource Center, which works with local children and families.

Higginbotham and Lane explained that not all accepted methods of bullying prevention are effective. For example, said Higginbotham, a zero-tolerance approach tends to exclude certain children too quickly. "There has to be a bit of picking battles," she said. She also noted that conflict resolution and peer mediation are generally over the heads of 10-year-olds, who might better be taught "refusal skills," by which they voice their feelings about bullying behavior they encounter.

Lane said bullies and their victims should never be made to shake hands or have a discussion. "You're giving the bully more power," she said. "They need to be separated."

Higginbotham also advised against group treatment for repeat offenders, because it sends a negative message. "Often, self-esteem is as important an issue with the bully as those being bullied," she said, and added that those in the group often end up reinforcing each other's behavior.

Instead, the speakers prescribed a long-term, comprehensive approach, with consistent involvement by students, teachers, school administrators, parents and the community as a whole.

Lane noted that in the first two years the Olweus program was implemented in Norway, a 50 percent to 70 percent reduction occurred in students' self-reports of bullying and being bullied, with the effects being more marked after 20 months than after the initial eight months. She said the change was accompanied by a decrease in vandalism, alcohol abuse and other problem behaviors.

ACCORDING TO A student survey conducted by the Fairfax County school system's Department of Special Services, bullying was one of the few problem behaviors that increased in county schools between 2001 and 2005, although the rise was slight.

The behavior includes not only direct physical and verbal abuse, but what Higginbotham called "indirect bullying," which she said is more commonly used by females. Spreading rumors, excluding particular people, getting someone else to harass the victim and the relatively new problem of cyber bullying, all fall into the category of indirect bullying.

Cyber bullying can now be perpetrated via e-mail, instant messages and Web sites, said Higginbotham. "You can get kids putting up blogs about other students that everyone else can see within a matter of minutes," she said. "Cyber bullying is very serious, and it's very important to us in Fairfax County."

To stem bullying behavior, the Olweus program recommends the formation of a trained, school-wide bullying prevention committee and the regular administration of a bully-victim questionnaire to inform the committee, said Lane. Supervision should be increased in bullying "hot spots." She said she had expected bus stops to be problem areas at her last school, but the questionnaire had shown that bullying by some of the patrols on buses was a bigger problem.

A set of school rules specific to bullying should be created and then posted, discussed and consistently reinforced through both positive and negative consequences in each classroom, she said. Regular class meetings should convene on the subject, and bullying themes should be incorporated across the curriculum. For example, said Lane, the concept of bullying could be worked into lessons on the Middle East.

On-the-spot interventions and follow-up discussions should take place separately with both the child being bullied and the child doing the bullying, she said.

ANOTHER RECOMMENDATION is that parents have daily check-in talks of at least 20 minutes with their children. "Don't just ask that bland question, 'How was your day?'" said Lane. She suggested questions such as "Who did you sit with at lunch?" or "How was your bus ride?"

Higginbotham noted that parents also need to be involved by being responsive to reports of their own children's bullying behavior, by setting good examples and by paying attention to their children's positive traits and behaviors.

On the community level, the Family Resource Center started a boys' club for children 8 to 12, of which an anti-bullying program is a strong component. Higginbotham said the center started a soccer team, "and we use the game and the positions in the game to talk about who's good at what." Another way the group works to build self-esteem is by cultivating its members' talents and interests, she said. To this end, its outings include a variety of activities, from ropes courses to museums. Also, getting the children involved in the community through such activities as trash cleanups, she said, "helps kids fit into their environment."

The center also sent home a message to parents of the club's members informing them about bullying prevention and then brought parents in for an hour, during which they discussed the center's efforts with the children and asked about the children's home lives. Higginbotham said this could be a touchy subject, but, she asked, "If they're going home to parents who are not on the same page that we are … how much difference are we making?"

"What we're trying to do is make bullying an unacceptable thing in every community," she said.

Darlene Pulliam and her fellow counselor at Halley Elementary in Fairfax Station co-wrote a grant that got a bullying prevention team trained in the Olweus method at their school last fall. The team then trained the school's faculty and staff, secretaries and all, "so that everybody's on the same page," she said.

Pulliam said the school administered a bullying questionnaire in November, kicked off the program in January and took another survey in May.

She said there were not remarkable changes in self-reports of bullying after those four or five months, but that students perceived a greater awareness of bullying. The survey showed that students and parents both were more willing to report bullying, that students recognized bullying behaviors more readily and that teachers spent more time talking about bullying. "so, based on that, we felt we were certainly headed in the right direction," she said.

Although "a couple" of parents had been upset by reports of their children bullying, she said, "most parents view it in a positive light," and she said the program had also been well-received by the teachers.

Pulliam said the ease with which the program has fit into the school may have been due to the anti-bullying work already going on there, such as the student rap group she started six years ago, called The Bully Nots. "All the kids want to be Bully-Nots," she said.

The difference, said Pulliam, is that the Olweus program focuses not only on discouraging bullying but on encouraging children to support the victim. "And we saw our kids begin to do that, and that's wonderful."