Fighting Back Against Bullying

By Beacon Staff

BIGFORK – At the beginning of November a Bigfork High School student found a note in a bathroom titled “People to Kill” with three names written on a piece of toilet paper. In a post-Columbine world of “zero tolerance” and heightened awareness, the school and the whole community heeded the warning.

It was an extreme example of what Bigfork schools are working to stem. It’s not that bullying is rampant in the school, but that doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent.

“Our problems are small,” says Michael Perez, the middle and high school choir teacher, “but they are problems.”

Last spring, after receiving complaints, the district conducted a survey to find out how big an issue bullying is. It went to the students to see if they had been bullied in the past, how often, and if they had witnessed intimidation.

“Even though we have a really nice bunch of kids,” says Bigfork Middle School psychologist Mary Ahnert, “bullying still happens.”

Of approximately 200 students in the third-through-eighth grades, 19 percent reported being bullied for an extended period of time. Twenty-five percent said they had been bullied two-to-three times in the past three months and 88 percent said they felt sorry about that they had seen and wished they had helped. Bigfork Middle School Principal Wayne Loeffler says the school looked at those numbers and decided to invest $6,000 in a program to fix it.

“We’ve got 88 percent of our kids who say its going on, but don’t know how to stop it,” says Loeffler. “We need to teach them.”

The district instituted the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. Bigfork teachers say this is the only district in the nation that has implemented the program from kindergarten through 12th grade. The goal is to create an atmosphere throughout the district that fosters inclusion and empowers students to stop bullying behavior.

“As the principal, sometimes you’re the last person to hear about things,” explains Loeffler. “Then you have to backtrack and try to talk to people.”

Teachers, lunch monitors, cafeteria workers, janitors, bus drivers and aides have all had the training. “They are instructed to intervene, immediately, right then and there,” says Loeffler.

Olweus teaches students four rules: not to bully others, to help another student being bullied, to include those who are easily left out and to tell an adult at school and an adult at home if they see or experience harassment.

“You may think of bullying as ‘Hey kid, give me your money,’” says Perez, “but it’s a little bit different now.” The staff is asking parents to help watch for name-calling, excluded students, rumors and cyber-bullying. The latter involves sending e-mails or texts of insults, rumors, or intimidations and can be the hardest to spot. As with other forms of bullying, it’s not generally reported to teachers.

“If you hear about bullying at home, chances are you’re the first to hear about it,” says Anhert. She says to make a note of where and how an incident occurred, helping the school to know how to intervene.

“Our first job is to protect who was bullied,” says middle school teacher Tracy Swope. “Every time a person is reported for bullying, it’s documented.” The school intends bullies to suffer immediate consequences, and to follow up with teachers and parents to stop the behavior.

Perez describes bullying as negative or harmful actions from one student who has more power – physical or social – over another student. Working with fifth through eighth-graders, he sees the transitions.

At the elementary level, Principal Jackie Boshka sees a specific problem. The school needs to teach their elementary school students the difference between tattling and helping.

“Are you trying to get someone in trouble,” she asks, “or are you trying to help them?” Boshka says at the elementary level they’ll also need to highlight the differences between rough and tumble play and bullying.

Olweus charts some of those differences: if it’s play, the people involved are friends, have played similar games before and switched roles, and will play other games together.

“At the lower level, it’s just awareness,” says Loeffler, “and hopefully that’ll carry on up.”