Bullying has been a widely discussed topic during the last few weeks in the wake of the incident involving the Ooltewah High basketball team. Contrary to public opinion, Hamilton County Schools have not been passive in our efforts to address bullying now or for the past several years. Unfortunately, bullying is a societal norm that is infiltrating our school community, and our schools are working diligently to preserve the safety of every student. The challenges are enormous, but one that is accepted and continuously addressed through STARS programming.
STARS provides an evidenced-based practice to foster a healthy learning environment that include preventing and responding to bullying behaviors. This process begins with a core team of teachers including a building administrator, school counselor and representatives from their staff spending one full day in training. During the training, school data collected by student surveys is reviewed (which includes locations of, frequency of, and even the number of friends one has) as well as bullying facts vs. myths. A school action plan is created with posters printed for every classroom outlining expected behavior, intervention cards with procedures for addressing observed incidents, and a procedure for training the entire staff. Resources are provided to promote conversations with students to address pro-social interactions. After the full day of staff training, staff updates are provided annually to remind staff of their responsibilities to preserve the safety of all students.
Schools are actively involved in the process creating videos and messages to promote anti-bullying. Check out one such video created by Ooltewah Middle School (http://bit.ly/RKhvCo). Hunter Middle designed a BINT (Bullying Is Not Tolerated) reporting document that is now used district wide to investigate claims of bullying. Principal Jim Jarvis of Ooltewah High required his entire staff to undergo a three and a half hour training in August. This after their core team of 10 had been involved in a full day of training.
For the past three years, Move2Stand Student Training has been provided by STARS to high school students who are more likely to serve as change agents on their respective campuses. The school determines the students that will be trained; for example at Soddy Daisy High, the entire freshmen class was trained; at Signal Mountain Middle/High, their student government was trained; at Brainerd, 48 students were selected to attend. STEM typically has their incoming students participate each year. Other school teams are involved in a multi-school event. The feedback is powerful. In fact, the emotional, moving response from the students results in follow-up activities on their campuses to build empathy and kindness among students.
The Youth Summit held in August involved representatives from 14 high schools. CSAS and Hixson High each held a conference at their school with the strategies they learned at the STARS Youth Summit. Principal Jim Boles was actively engaged with every aspect of his student training. Hixson High has gone a step beyond and cultivated a WildCast for Change Troupe (with sponsor Ashley Cisto) that has conducted “anti-bullying” presentations at the annual STARS Youth Conference and with other schools. Other school efforts include Soddy Daisy High student leadership team (with sponsor David Sneed), Tyner Academy's Ram Strong initiative (sponsor Katy Elkins) and East Ridge High "Shake 'Em Up" Wednesday's (sponsor Shannon Corros). East Hamilton has a rich history with their JBN (Just Be Nice Campaign) with sponsor Teresa Molinar, and Central (sponsor Lindsey Ruggles) engaged students in Rachel’s Challenge.
Kindness Matters is offered at the elementary level with the 5th grade class. Realizing that the 5th graders have the greatest influence among all grade levels on their campuses, students sign a pledge agreeing to: Use kind words; solve problems without fighting; not bully others; and be respectful to adults and peers. At quarterly programs, high school students within their feeder pattern zone present T-shirts and certificates to the students identified through their school review committee as worthy to be recognized for promoting kindness. It is not uncommon for the high school students to share a testimony of how friendships are important. One Howard student shared with the Hardy Elementary students that her best friend today (as a senior) was one who stood up for her in 3rd grade when she was subjected to bullying behavior. What a powerful message for elementary students to hear from a high school student.
To empower students to resolve conflict in a peaceful manner, STARS provides peer mediation training. Though the trend within society may lead students to solve issues through physical altercation, these students are trained to problem solve by “attacking the problem” rather than the person. Tyner Middle Academy (sponsor Anna Millard) annually reports record number of mediations resolved successfully. East Ridge High, CCA, Hixson High, Lookout Valley, Central, Ooltewah Middle, CSAS, and CSLA have active mediation teams as well.
This year, Restorative Practices Training is being provided to offer school personnel with another tool to build social capital and reduce recidivism. Training was provided first with all school social workers; three schools have started the three-day training series this month with three additional schools to be added in March.
One area which is always challenging though is the involvement of parents. At the Hamilton County PTA meeting in August when bullying was addressed, 12 parents were in attendance. During a community event at CSAS in September with a Cyber Bullying Expert Sameer Hinduja, a handful were in attendance—most of which were school personnel and community professionals. The first event was held at 11 a.m., the second at 6 p.m. Both were communicated in the media and through HCDE Communication Connect Ed, yet attendance was sorely lacking at both. I understand this is the norm for most school parent meetings.
It is extremely unfortunate that the event occurred involving the basketball trip, but maybe this is a wake up call for everyone. The vast majority of the community is now involved only because of this incident. The support necessary to combat this societal ill would require a greater level of commitment than writing a letter. Our schools personnel are and have been addressing this issue for many years. Are we “batting 1,000”? Absolutely not, but our goal is to do so and we are striving every day to achieve that ideal. Our public schools deal with many of the same issues that plague our community. If it poses a challenge for trained/skilled law enforcement, how much more of a challenge would it pose for civilian school personnel. It takes a village to make an impact. So work with us in our efforts to make a difference.
Karen Glenn, STARS
Safe School Learning Environment