Students at the Joyanne Miller School in Egg Harbor Township will end their lunch periods each Monday for the next couple of months with one of of nine short student-made public service announcements on bullying.
In Cape May County, Georgia Dougherty of the Coalition Against Rape and Abuse, or CARA, came into classrooms at the Maud Abrams School in Lower Township this week to give the third and fourth graders an anti-bullying "booster" on how to respond to bullying and treat others.
Sgt. Tom Finan of the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office kicked off Cyber-Wellness Week at Mullica Township Middle School Monday by warning the fifth through eighth graders how a cell phone or computer can be used to bully.
A new state law that took effect in January strengthens the state requirements for how schools handle bullying. All schools are required to have bully-prevention programs, an anti-bullying specialist and coordinator, and training for teachers and administrators.
School districts have complied, and agree bullying is a serious problem. But educators said the public must also recognize the difference between malicious bullying and the lesser disputes and behaviors that young people routinely face. Both must be addressed, but in different ways.
"Everything that happens is now called bullying," said James Dietterich, a retired police officer and behavior management assistant at the Abrams school, which has had anti-bullying programs since 1993. "But I have probably only ever seen two actual cases of bona fide bullying. Do we have issues here with student behavior? Sure. All schools do. But do we have a bullying problem? No."
The new law amends the definition of harassment, intimidation and bullying to include that an incident must substantially disrupt or interfere with the orderly operation of the school, or the rights of other students. It must create a hostile learning environment for the student by causing physical or emotional harm. It is typically not just a one-time event.
Two themes are getting extra attention in schools. The first is focuses on reinforcing positive behavior by encouraging students to embrace their differences, support victims and report bullies. The second is cyber-bullying and how using a social network to make fun of another student could become bullying.
A new state bill also tackles the issue of young people "sexting," or sending sexually explicit photos of themselves online, by creating educational and treatment programs for juveniles who post such images rather than treating them like child pornographers.
Mullica's Middle School is devoting this week to cyber-wellness because staff has recognized that students use the technology, but still don't understand its dangers.
"The majority of students have Facebook, and they are on it a lot," principal Matthew Mazzoni said. "We have had incidents that started on Facebook, then got brought into school."
Beth Perlman's fifth graders made avatar masks for a lesson on how people online can pretend to be anyone they want to be. Students talked about how their avatars looked and acted differently than they, themselves, would in real life.
Jill Pino's fifth grade math classes turned a cyber-bullying survey into a lesson on graphing and percentages. In one class of 11 students, six said they have a Facebook account, seven had put videos on YouTube, eight said they text, nine said they have used chat rooms, five said they have been bullied, and all 11 said they had bullied someone by either saying something mean about them or physically pushing or hitting them.
"Facebook just magnifies an incident," Mazzoni said. "It's no longer just a one-on-one event. Now thousands can know about it. Or if just one student is excluded from being a friend on Facebook, it has an impact. Friends are really important at this age."
County prosecutors' offices have become involved both to protect students from online predators, and to warn them about their own behavior online. This month the Cape May County Prosecutor's Office sponsored a countywide bullying/domestic violence workshop that focused on the Green Dot Prevention program. Atlantic County's Finan, has done 50 cyberbullying workshops this school year warning students to "think before they hit send" because they could hurt someone.
At the Miller School, the first of nine student-made public service announcements on bullying made its debut Monday in the cafeteria.
"Students hear from the adults all the time," guidance counselor Beverly Celona said. "We thought it might have more impact if they see their own peers and classmates."
Teacher Kelly Hunt worked with the fifth grade gifted and talented class and school peer mediators to create themes and storyboards, then made the videos using a small grant from the district's Education Foundation. In the first video a group of girls makes fun of another girl. Rather than just getting mad, or upset, the girl files a report and goes to peer mediation. Other videos address being a bystander, cyberbullying, and what do if you are bullied.
Isabella Salerno, 10, said kids do talk to each other more than to adults, so they are in a position to help. She said she and a friend once reported when they saw someone getting bullied on the bus. Jenna Tracy, 10, said they also want potential bullies to know they will be punished.
Celona said the school is emphasizing cyberbullying and bystander intervention this year because peers are more likely to see or hear about bullying. The school has a Bully Box where students and write up and report incidents. Celona said most incidents are not serious, but stopping them quickly can prevent them from escalating.
Parents remain a wild card in the issue. Some students come from homes where bullying is normal behavior. Some parents see any insult to their child as bullying and want the perpetrator severely punished. Working parents may not be home to see what a child is doing on the computer or cell phone.
"We try to get parents to notice if a child's behavior is changing, or suddenly they don't want to come to school," Mazzoni said.
Dougherty, the youth advocate for CARA, said bullying is not just a school problem, but parents expect schools to manage it.
"But you have to look outside the school the see what might be sparking the incidents," she said. Her lessons focused on how easy it is to label and stereotype people then make fun of them.
Character education, the positive reinforcement model of the anti-bullying movement, has also been tapped to reward students for making good decisions and taking positive action.
"The lesson can't just always be about what they shouldn't do," Mullica's Mazzoni said.
"Kids are supposed to make mistakes. We have to teach how to learn from them," said Mullica guidance counselor Bill Maher. "Students have to learn how to stand up for themselves, and have empathy for others."
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