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Darkness Visible

Illustration by Dung Hoang | Source photography by Leng Hong Lim

Darkness Visible (continued)

What makes middle school such a challenge is the timing. Sixth- through eighth-graders are sandwiched between elementary school, when students are supervised round-the-clock, and high school, where the primary focus is academics. Meantime, they’re encouraged to take on a host of responsibilities—juggling the demands of multiple classes and teachers, for example—even as their maturity levels are in flux.

“I don’t think [middle school] kids are natural bullies,” Principal Beall explains. “But, developmentally, they have so many social issues to deal with. Intimacy is important, but they’re very immature. They have feelings of jealousy and competition and sort of love-hate things going on. Generally, they get all mixed up.”

So it’s perhaps no surprise that Beall and her staff recently had to handle a “sticky situation.” A new eighth-grade student, a girl who’d just moved to the area, made the mistake of poking fun at a classmate who, with the aid of friends, retaliated verbally on an almost-daily basis. At Central, Beall says, district-mandated procedures on how to detect and intervene in bullying situations are mixed with those developed in-house, including the use of a “cease and desist” form, on which the perpetrator acknowledges that she’s been harassing a fellow student and intends to stop.

But, in this case, the behavior continued, with both sides engaging in such heated arguments that there was concern about a physical confrontation. So, for a time, certain parties were removed from school. The day they returned, a group of girls entered the school wearing T-shirts emblazoned with a colloquialism intended to embarrass the new student. They were quickly pulled into the principal’s office.

Beall says the situation, which included parental involvement, has been resolved. “Everybody’s moved on,” she explains. “We’ve done a lot of environmental things—changed classes, made sure they’re not at the same lunch tables.”

A whole-school approach to bullying is exactly what district and state policies—and the U.S. Department of Education, which released policy recommendations this past December—endorse. Bradshaw, in fact, goes a step further, recommending a schoolwide framework, developed by the University of Oregon, called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS. Although it doesn’t target bullying specifically, PBIS is aimed at establishing—via data collection and positive reinforcements—a safe environment in which students thrive socially and academically.

“We love PBIS,” Buckler says of Maryland, where more than 800 schools have signed on, including half the schools in Anne Arundel County. He cautions, however, that if specific anti-bullying measures aren’t included, “PBIS isn’t going to cut it. It isn’t a stand-alone.” Schools, he says, need to make sure that they’re tailoring anti-bullying efforts toward the needs of their students.

At Central Middle, Beall has asked her best classroom managers—those skilled at keeping students engaged and out of trouble—to share their techniques with colleagues while giving counselors like Seward free rein to involve the students.

“With the announcements, the banners, the songs, what they’re doing is creating a culture,” explains Seward, who, like her fellow counselors, teaches anti-bullying lessons throughout the year. “What I’ve noticed with BAC is, kids are informally reporting things to me that they would not have done before. We’ve set up an environment that says, ‘This is not OK. We do not accept this in our school.’”

This is crucial for Beall. “Formal bullying is not a huge problem [at Central],” she says. “It’s the annoying kinds of behaviors that can lead to bullying that get to be a problem. And the guidance department and student involvement help curb it.”

A drop in bullying referrals—from 13 last year to two this year—is proof, as are Central’s latest bullying-survey results, released in January. In most categories, the school betters the district average. Only 54 percent of students (compared to 62 percent districtwide) feel that bullying is a moderate-to-serious problem, and 78 percent (versus 72 percent) feel safe in school. Would Beall like to see those numbers improve? “Of course,” she says, “but we’re moving in the right direction.”

Bradshaw, who spoke at her second White House bullying summit earlier this year, is of the same mind. “Many anti-bullying policies focus more on documentation and responses than on prevention,” she explains. “They need more training opportunities and evidence-based interventions. And from the research field’s perspective, we’d like to know more about what really works and how to change behaviors. But it’s a start.”


This forum is closed
  • Lisa Muessig

    Kansas City, KS 05/12/2011 03:29:52 PM

    I liked the students' new lyrics and the use of the arts to raise awareness.

  • Cathy Readmond

    Bayview Campus 05/12/2011 04:14:39 PM

    What an inspiring article. I have a child ready to enter high school. I am thankful bullying is no longer looked at as a right of passage.

  • Teresa Wonnell

    Homewood campus 06/09/2011 08:52:32 AM

    I sent this article to my middle schooler's principal, and she shared it with her school counseling team. The school is going to discuss starting a student club similar to the one at Central. So I think it's an inspiring article as well!

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