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School principals will take lead in bullying investigations

By Kyle Barnett -   Jul 26, 2012

This year the Louisiana legislature passed a bill dealing directly with how school systems should handle bullying.

The Tesa Middlebrook Anti-Bullying Act was named after a Pointe Coupee Parish student who hung herself from the gym bleachers earlier this year. It provides clearer definitions for bullying and cyber-bullying and a process by which students can report harassment. Additionally, the act also calls for schools to provide suicide prevention information to students.

St. Charles Parish school system officials said they have already instituted much of what the law requires.

Mary Lou Sumrall, director of special programs at St. Charles Public Schools, said the legislation should have little effect on the school system.

"Itís very comprehensive," Sumrall said. "Every school district by January has to have policies in place. I donít think itís going to change too much how we do things because we were pretty much on top of it anyway."

Sumrall said the biggest change from the legislation in St. Charles will be that the school principal will take the lead in all bullying investigations.

Sumrall said despite work being done on the problem every year, bullying has been and always will be a problem.

"Unfortunately, I think bullying has been around since Adam and Eve and I think that it is just the nature of man to put other folks down," she said. "Weíve just got to combat that by creating cultures in our school that are not accepting of that sort of thing."

WWL-TV recently reported that Hahnville High School student Christine Smith dropped out of school due to bullying. Smith claims she was beaten in a Kenner mall parking lot and then harassed on the internet by her fellow students.

Sumrall said the school is only able to handle conflict that happens at school and not between classmates in the greater community.

"We canít control what the kids do at home, unfortunately," Sumrall said. "However, in cyber-bullying incidences if there is mess that starts at school and itís causing a disturbance in class then we can get involved."

In Smithís case it appears the bullying occurred outside of the school setting.

Four schools in the system are now using a program called the Olweus Bully Prevention Program that is aimed at changing how bullying cases are handled.

"In most schools or any area, 90 percent of the kids are bystanders, five percent are the bullied and five percent are the bullies," Sumrall said. "What I like about this particular program is that it does train the 90 percent how to intervene in a bullying situation because teachers donít have eyes in the back of their head."

The Olweus program implements changes school-wide that include establishing a bully prevention committee, training staff how to deal with bullying and involving parents of both the bullies and bullied when a situation arises.

Over the last two years, the plan has been implemented at R.J. Vial Elementary, J.B. Martin Middle School, Norco Elementary and Ethel Shoeffner Elementary. Sumrall said it is too early to provide statistical results, but she thinks the program is working.

Other schools in the system develop their own policies and procedures on a school-by-school basis to deal with bullying.

Sumrall said every instance of bullying reported in the school system is dealt with, but it is up to the students to report the occurrences first.

"Often times these kids donít tell. They donít. Either they are afraid itís going to get worse or theyíre at the age where they are not going to Ďratí somebody out," Sumrall said. "We try to tell them about the resources we have available in the school, but you have to let us know."

All reports of bullying are kept confidential if possible. As an example, Sumrall cites the case of a high school girl who reported being bullied last year.

After being informed of the bullying, members of the administration positioned themselves where they could catch the bully in the act.

"So the girl that reported it was not involved," Sumrall said. "Those people did not even know that she had reported it."

Darren DeSalvo, of Cyclone Martial Arts and Fitness, agrees that it is up to the student to report bullying. However, DeSalvo teaches a "bully proofing" course where he teaches students to stand up for themselves and get physical if necessary.

"The policy that they have is good to prevent fighting, but they donít realize not only the physical, but emotional toll it takes on a child," DeSalvo said. "They donít want to ride the bus anymore. They donít want to go to school anymore. It totally destroys their education as far as Iím concerned because they are more worried about getting in a fight and getting beat up than going to learn and going to school."

DeSalvo said he has had many parents come to him with students who are being bullied.

"The parents will come in and tell us that their kid is getting bullied and it has a lot to do with their self-esteem and how they carry themselves," he said. "Once they get in here and they start training they start gaining more confidence."

Although he knows getting physical with an aggressor is against school policy, DeSalvo thinks it is the only way a bully will stop their behavior.

"I know the Ďno fightí policy thatís in there now is a very good policy, but when it comes down to it, if they have to defend themselves they have to do something," DeSalvo said. "The bullies try to attack the weak. They donít want to mess with someone who is going to fight back for themselves."

Sumrall said there is a strict Ďno fightí policy in the schools and students who are being bullied can defend themselves as a last option and only if they are cornered.

Students who do get in fights go into the schoolís conflict-resolution program.

In that program students are required to attend classes in conflict resolution on two consecutive Saturdays in addition to doing community service work. The program is a partnership between the school system, the St. Charles Parish Sheriffís Office, the parishís judges and the St. Charles Parish District Attorneyís Office.

"We do everything we can do to save children. We donít go out to punish kids. We try to fix the problems," Sumrall said. "I think we really go out of our way and I think the conflict resolution was a great coming together of the judicial system."

Sumrall said that the program has been in place for the past 15 years and is an indicator that the school system is working with students on the problem of conflict as a whole. She says the program has reduced instances of fighting by around 60 percent.

"Nobody wants to go to court school and nobody wants to have to go to the alternative school for a while," she said.

Sumrall said although the school is hard at work trying to promote healthy student relationships, the school systemís response can only go so far.

"Is it perfect? No. Because so many of the things that happen come from the community–things that we canít control," she said. "All we can control is what happens when the kids get to the school and how things are reacted to at school.

"When those rules are broken, thatís when we get to jump in."

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