Principal says anti-bullying program has changed culture of school

Despite success, only 4 schools in parish use program

Students looked on intently at R.J. Vial Elementary School as teachers and administrators put on a play and pretended to be school children to show how students should act when encountering bullying.

As the “students” ganged up on a classmate, even getting physical at one point, R.J. Vial Principal Jackie Sperier stepped in to stop the incident from going on any longer. The play was held as part of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program that seeks to inform children on how to prevent bullying from occurring in their school.

R.J. Vial is one of four schools in the district where the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program is entering its fifth year of implementation.

Over the years in which Olweus has been in place, Sperier said the culture of the school has improved when it comes to bullying.

“If we are going to put a stop to bullying, if we are going to have a 100 percent bully free school every single day of the year, everybody has got to take a stance. Everybody has to do their part,” she said.

In the play, the school staff members identified different roles students play in bullying from being an aggressor or supporter of bullying tactics to a disinterested onlooker and even those who actually step in to help the student being bullied.

Sperier said bullying is a cultural issue within a school that can be conquered by structured education of both children and parents on how to identify and prevent bullying.

“Bullying is defined by an event that creates an imbalance of power between individuals that is repeated. It’s not just something that happened one time. It is something that happens over and over,” she said.

Sperier said the purpose of implementing the intensive Olweus program is to empower students to take control of bad situations and turn them around for good.

“This is really what we want to empower our students to do. They don’t like the bullying and what they do is they try to help the person being bullied,” she said.

Bayou Gauche resident Chad AuCoin, 45, has had two children in St. Charles Parish Public Schools, one who has gone on to college and another who is in the fifth grade at R.J. Vial. AuCoin, who is also the Parent Teacher Organization

president at R.J. Vial, said he has noticed a difference in the school’s culture since the introduction of Olweus.

“The environment is unique for kids. It is a special breed of kids here, they get along. You don’t see any confrontations, you don’t see much of anything…it is like they are one happy family and one unit and they just function throughout the day,” he said.  “In the three years we’ve been here with my daughter I haven’t seen any disturbances. It just runs smooth like you wouldn’t imagine.”

AuCoin is a big supporter of the Olweus program due to the attention it brings to school bullying.

“They are not only educating kids, it gives the kids a voice – one child, one voice – but it also educates the parents that overlook it,” he said.

AuCoin said the program evens extends to the busses that take kids home.

“When dismissal comes in the evening they have the bully free buses that [Sperier] announces every evening so the kids will know it is not going on in the buses either,” he said. “Just because you are leaving it doesn’t mean you are free. You are free once you get home with your parents, but at school and on the bus you are still on school grounds.”

AuCoin said he feels sorry for the other schools that do not have Olweus in place.

“You look at some of the other schools that don’t promote this. Their parents are not really educated on the whole situation and they think it is just clowning around and good to go, but they’ve never gone through the foundation and seen the structure of the program,” he said.

One such school that does not have the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program in place is R.K. Smith Middle School, where just last year one student, who has made claims of systemic bullying for years, finally decided to take matters into her own hands.

Ayla Nicholas began the group Ayla’s Army after suffering years of torment that came to a head when she was allegedly jumped at R.K. Smith by six fellow classmates and knocked unconscious.

Nicholas’ mother, Ella, said the bullying of her daughter has been ongoing for a number of years and has only gotten worse as school officials have been unable to stop it.

“In elementary it was little kids little problems, the further you go you have bigger kids and  bigger problems. I have reported it and I have done anything we can possibly do and it has just been worse to the point where she has written suicide notes,” Ella said.

At R.K. Smith, Ella said the system has failed her family in the past.

“Their policies stink, they are no good. They don’t work, obviously they don’t work. They need new policies implemented,” she said.

However, St. Charles Parish Public Schools administrators are still reluctant to introduce Olweus system wide.

In a letter to the Nicholas family, AJ Pethe, former principal of the year from Luling Elementary and now executive director of secondary schools, said it is unclear if Olweus actually works.

“Data is being collected to determine its effectiveness,” he wrote.

Mary Lou Sumrall, director of special programs at St. Charles Public Schools, said with or without the Olweus program schools do have some sort of anti-bullying training in place.

“Every one of them is being trained on what to do. We are investigating those things, we just don’t let those slide. I can tell you when counselors, teachers and administrators are told about a problem, something is done,” she said.

Sumrall is a supporter of the Olweus program.

“I think basically the easy thing about Olweus is it gives you a structure and framework. Kind of like a cookbook, it gives a structured approach and that is the beauty of it,” she said.

But when it comes to changing the culture of a school, such as what R.J. Vial seems to accomplished since implementing the Olweus program in its entirety, Sumrall said she is not sure all schools can follow that path.

“It is a time commitment to do the Olweus program,” she said.

However, Sumrall said all schools have taken parts of the Olweus program and are implementing it. She added that a system-wide bully prevention task force is in place to educate teachers and school administrators.

“We have been meeting with principals and getting them involved. We meet about every three months and talk about what we can do. Even though there are only four school with Olweus, all of the schools are taking parts of it,” she said.

Despite reports such as that of the Nicholas family, Sumrall said she is confident the school system is moving in the right direction to eliminate bullying throughout the entire school district.

“Nobody should go to school and be bullied, that should not happen,” she said.

Sumrall said in the end that if a student is being bullied there is nothing the school system can do unless kids tell a teacher or administrator first.

“We have to know it first. If the student gets bullied they have to tell people,” she said.

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