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John Monfredo: Anti-Bullying Conference Focuses on Efforts in Worcester

Saturday, March 09, 2013


“The more kids are aware of what bullying is the better. Simple teasing can really take a toll on a kid. We just want kids to know [bullying] when they see it, so they can at least try and stop it.” –Dr. Carl Sousa

Bullying should never be considered a rite of passage, for no student should be afraid to go to school because of bullying and no parent should be worried that their child may be bullied. In 2010, Governor Patrick struck a blow for all students who face bullying in school when he signed into law a bill that bans it on all school grounds, buses and activities, and mandates that every instance of bullying be investigated by school officials and reported to the parents of the students involved.

However, the bullying issue is ongoing and it must be addressed continuously if we are to try and eradicate this nationwide problem. With this in mind, the Worcester Public Schools, spearheaded by school safety officer Rob Pezzella, along with a host of community partners held a conference on Bullying Prevention. Over 370 educators across Worcester County attended the conference at South High in Worcester last week. Key partners with the Worcester Public Schools came to the conference to address this most important issue. District Attorney Joe Early, Attorney General Martha Coakley, members of the Department of Probation, Juvenile Judge Carol Erskine, and host of educators came to express their concern and to keep the issue of bullying in the forefront.

Worcester’s School superintendent Melinda Boone stressed that the issue of bullying needs to be an ongoing discussion for we cannot walk away from it just because there is a law in place. All of the speakers spoke about how this issue has changed for in the past many adults viewed bullying as a passing stage of childhood or as a problem that children should be left to work out on their own. Evidence shows that bullying is harmful and often has long lasting effects for children who were bullied, and for those who witness bullying.

District Attorney Joe Early spoke about how bullying has changed for one student told him that he’d rather take a physical beating because that has a start and an end time. But with cyberbullying it goes on 24 / 7. Thus, with technology, students can be cruel to each other in ways that were unimaginable.

One of the most active school districts since the inception of the new law has been the Worcester Public Schools, and the district has made sure that no one will become complacent about this ongoing issue. As school liaison Rob Pezzella stated the Worcester plan is a whole school approach where everyone goes through a very comprehensive bullying training on all procedures for bullying. However, he felt when the new law was enacted that the one ingredient missing from the policy was the remediation piece.

That missing piece led to the establishment of the B.R.A.C.E (Bullying Remediation and Court Education. The program was rolled out by Judge Carole Erskine of the Worcester County Juvenile Court and with the assistance of School Safety Liaison Robert Pezzella of the Worcester Public Schools a number of partnerships were formed with the Juvenile Probation, Worcester Police, Worcester District Attorney’s office and Y.O.U. Inc.

The one day remediation program for those students involved in bullying in our schools is intended to keep our children out of court. Judge Erskine stated that this is a unique program and the first in the nation. The program offers education and training around destructive effects of bullying, and the serious legal and financial consequences of bullying. Judge Erskine stated, “I began putting the outline and modules together about a year and half ago in order to respond to the increase in cases being filed with our courts that involved criminal or civil harassment. I wanted to pilot the program in Worcester because it’s a big district and many of the cases were coming in from Worcester… the idea was to use clinicians, police and court officials to educate kids about potential consequences of bullying including the potential for legal involvement. This would be balanced with clinicians who would engage in role playing and empathy exercises.” Her ideas were embraced by the Worcester Public Schools and thus we have a program that has been assisting our students.

Students from any Worcester Public School can be referred to the program by the school and then they would be scheduled for the next available session. All partners in the B.R.A.C.E. project are involved in the process and there is a follow-up to see whether additional assistance with the students is needed.

At the conference the implementation of B.R.A.C.E. was discussed through a panel presentation and how it has assisted those students who committed acts of bullying. It was mentioned that thirty days following the completion of the program, a school principal or designee assesses the student’s status. Should the student’s bullying behavior continue, school officials make a determination on future actions, which could include filing a habitual offender petition with the courts, or other appropriate school sanctions.

The conference funded by the DCU for Kids, a non-profit charitable foundation of Digital Federal Credit Union also had a video presentation entitled the Bullying Project. Ryan Knowles, the Social Media Outreach Media Manager for the Bully Project, underlined his anti-bullying campaign. He spoke about filmmaker and director Lee Hirsh’s “Bullying” video that has had an immediate impact on Middle and High School students who have seen the video. The film gives an intimate glimpse into school buses, classrooms, cafeterias and even principals’ offices, offering insight into the often cruel world of children, as teachers, administrators, and parents struggle to find answers. The film’s intent is to be a catalyst for change and to turn the tide on an epidemic of violence that has touched every community across the nation.

On the high school level South High Principal Maureen Binienda stated that her school showed the Bullying film to the entire school and that was followed by a discussion and essay. The students were impacted by the film and at lunch students signed pledges saying no to bullying and received a free Stop Bullying bracelet. Principal Binienda went on to say that she feels that the best strategy for a school is to build a supportive school climate where students react and work so everyone feels welcome.

As for best practices, Worcester has been a model for the state… the system has made everyone aware of bullying and all staff members have had extensive training. The schools have an array of anti-bullying programs such as Second Step and Steps to Respect taught by the health teachers. Most important, it continues to remind everyone that bullying with not be tolerated. Colleen O’Brien, the Worcester Public School’s Health and Physical education liaison and a member of the Bullying Task Force, was asked about best strategies that schools need to employ. She was quick to point out that leadership was first. “Leadership at all levels plays a critical role in the prevention of bullying especially in the context of whole school and community efforts to promote a positive school climate. Leaders have a primary role in teaching students and staff to be civil to one another and promoting understanding of and respect for diversity and difference. Leadership is responsible for setting priorities and for staying up-to-date with current research on ways to prevent and effectively respond to bullying.”

She then listed training and professional development for all employees at the school as essential with the training to be provided district wide to build the skills of staff members to prevent, identify and respond to bullying. Mrs. O’Brien stated that in Worcester, schools have access to resources and services for a key aspect of promoting positive climates is ensuring that the underlying emotional needs of targets, aggressors, families, and others are addressed.

Another strategy needed is academic and non-academic activities for every school must
provide age-appropriate instruction on bullying prevention in each grade that is evidence based. Effective instruction should include classroom approaches, whole school initiatives, and focused strategies for bullying prevention and social skills development to ensure safe and supportive school environments. Mrs. O’Brien stated that equally important is for the schools to be sure that there is a way for reporting and responding to bullying and retaliation. Schools should have detailed procedures for staff reporting of incidents, processes for communicating to students and families how reports can be made (including anonymous reports), and procedures to be followed by the principal or designee once a report is made. Finally, Mrs. O’Brien indicated there must be collaboration with families for if we are to increase the capacity to prevent and respond to bullying we need to involve the family.

Congratulations goes out to the Worcester Public Schools for being pro-active in addressing the issue of bullying, for the system has continued to work with the District Attorney’s office, held cyber-bullying training and has used Bridgewater State College’s Elizabeth Englander, considered an expert in bullying for teacher workshops, worked with the courts and a host of other partners in an attempt to stop this senseless epidemic.

Clearly, there is no “silver bullet” for preventing bullying but a “whole school” approach shows the most promise in helping create a safe school environment that will help children to grow academically and socially. Research supports the fact that school-based prevention programs can decrease bullying. Schools with the largest reduction in bullying were those that thoroughly and consistently implemented programs using a whole-school approach. It is imperative that schools utilize these “best practices” in reducing bullying to ensure that there are no barriers to students’ learning and achievement. 


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