Comprehensive program already in place
New reporting requirements and more frequent training sessions may be the only changes required at Forest Lake Area Schools when Minnesota’s new anti-bullying law takes effect.
Superintendent Linda Madsen said policies and procedures already in place to prevent and reduce bullying fit well with the new law.
“We’ve hit the main components,” she said. “We feel very well-
positioned to do most of this.”
The new law takes effect next school year, and Madsen expects the state will provide guidance on what the district needs to do by the end of June.
Anti-Bullying Policy 541, the current district policy, was adopted in July 2003 and has been updated yearly since 2007.
Each building has a bullying prevention committee and a point person to receive complaints, usually the school counselor or principal. If an incident is reported, the school contacts the parents of both parties. Consequences are based on whether there is a past history and how severe the behavior was.
In the past there was a districtwide policy, but individual schools used different methods to apply it.
“Not everyone agreed; we went back and forth. There were a lot of different strategies,” Madsen said. “Now we have a common definition, a common approach. We’ve done the heavy lifting on our policy.”
Carolyn Latady, the district’s family support advocate, administers the program. A few years ago, a parent sent her an article clipped from a Kansas City newspaper about the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.
Created by Norwegian researcher Dan Olweus, the program is considered the gold standard of bullying prevention programs because it’s so comprehensive, Madsen said.
It’s also expensive to get started. But through a partnership with Hazelden, which distributes the program in North America, and a grant from the Fred C. and Katherine B. Andersen Foundation in Bayport, the district adopted the program in 2005.
At that time school staff, including bus drivers, noon duty supervisors, food service workers, custodians and paraprofessionals, received training in identifying bullying and taking steps to prevent it. Each year since then, new employees also get two full days of training.
The Olweus program includes classroom meetings on bullying, kindness and empathy. Students learn that bullying is not something they have to put up with and that a teacher is someone they can come to. Information is also sent to families.
A key part of the program is teaching kids to stick up for each other. Instead of thinking “If I’m not being bullied and I’m not the bully, I have no responsibility,” witnesses are encouraged to speak up during the incident and report it afterward. Positive consequences are in place so that if a student intervenes or reports, he might be rewarded with his picture on the wall or lunch with a principal.
To contend with the possibility of reprisal (kids are afraid to report, thinking things will get worse), the program calls for more severe consequences in recurring cases.
Another part of the program is annual surveys. Since the program began, survey results have shown increased awareness, decreased number of incidents (even allowing for more reporting) and increase in the percentage of kids who intervene as bystanders or reporters.
Each building surveys kids yearly, and the detailed report helps to identify “hot spots,” such as bullying among fifth-grade boys or bullying in the hallways.
The Peaceful Bus program, not officially part of Olweus, was initiated by Latady to deal with that part of the day when there are no teachers around.
Two or three times a year, bus drivers come into the school building with their riders. They discuss appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and the kids get to know bus driver.
Given a chance to interview the bus driver, students frequently ask “Do you have pets?” and “What’s your dog’s name?” The goal is to make them feel comfortable talking to the driver and to think of the driver as part of the support system.
Currently, the annual survey is the main cost to the district. It takes about $3,000 to $5,000 per year, Latady said, plus meeting and training time for all staff.
After the initial comprehensive training, staff members now receive updates. Only new staff undergo the thorough training. The new state law calls for training all staff every three years.
“We’re not sure how that will be carried out,” Madsen said. “If they tell us it will be a certain amount of time, it will be an additional expense.”
Madsen said even though the Forest Lake district did not need this legislation, it may be a good thing it passed because of the potential benefit to other districts.
Forest Lake resident Melanie Ross has been an active proponent of passage, and her son Jake testified before legislative groups telling of his experience being bullied.
The Ross family left Lakes International Language Academy because they were not satisfied with the school’s response to the incident. Jake now attends Scandia Elementary, part of Forest Lake Area Schools.
Cam Hedlund, director of Lakes International Language Academy, said the school’s record of the facts does not agree with the story Jake tells.
In any case, Lakes International Language Academy also expects little effect from the new statewide legislation.
“A couple years ago we rewrote our anti-bullying policy,” Assistant Director Shannon Peterson said. “It looks like we’ve got all of the main parts already in our policy. School climate is a big deal here.”