GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — There were no workshops on bullying at Friday’s conference of the Cape Atlantic School Counselors Association at Richard Stockton College.
“It’s always a hot topic,” CASCA President Carl Palmer said. “But there are a lot of resources out there for bullying. We wanted to give them information about other issues they deal with.”
About 100 school counselors and social workers attended the event, and many interviewed admitted the new anti-bullying law and its time-consuming investigation process have dominated the last school year. Palmer said for some, almost half of their job had become dealing with bullying complaints.
“The paperwork takes so much time,” said Absecon counselor Jennifer Mazza. “And sometimes you think there is a better way to resolve an issue than doing an investigation. Mediation could solve a lot of issues.”
This week the state Department of Education released a report showing that public schools had investigated more than 35,000 bullying complaints during 2011-12.
But Palmer said counselors do much more, and the workshops covered topics that ranged from using art therapy to communicate with children to positive behavior modification in the classroom, an overview of the state Division of Child Protection and what counselors should know about the public school choice program so they can advise inquiring parents.
Bruce Gitto, a counselor at the Alder Avenue School in Egg Harbor Township, said he views the new anti-bullying law as an opportunity to help children. He said while most incidents are not outright bullying, they often represent an opening to other problems.
“Only a small number of incidents are bullying,” he said. “But they all need to be addressed.”
He said social and family issues spill over into the classroom every day, and during the economic downturn he has seen more families break up, lose homes and move more frequently.
“The day is built around these issues,” he said. “A math lesson on buying a car leads to a child saying that their dad’s car broke down and he can’t afford to buy a new one.”
Issues vary depending on the age, grade and location of the children. Robin Resnick, a counselor in Ventnor schools, said this year the youngest students seem to be having a harder time adjusting to school. She said most behavioral issues she sees are just young children not knowing how to behave.
“It’s not bullying or intimidation,” she said. “It’s just bad behavior.”
Recently retired school counselor Jennie Sabato said all the statistics generated by the bullying law are only helpful if they are used to improve a school climate. She said school counselors can be influential in improving a school’s culture, but they have to be given the chance.
“Counseling is not just about getting into college or doing bullying investigations,” she said, admitting the issue is a personal crusade. “It’s a holistic approach to creating school climate. It’s a hands-on approach, working with teachers and students. It’s proactive, not reactive.”
Gitto said he tries to set a positive tone at the beginning of the school year by calling the parents of every child he is responsible for, introducing himself, and explaining what he does and how he can help them. He said he’ll make about 400 calls during the first marking period.
“I want to change that perception that we only call when there’s trouble,” he said. “I want to get the parents on my side right at the beginning of the year.”
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