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Fighting bullying
Preventing and addressing bullying
Oak Grove and 10 other middle schools use a program to address and diminish bullying
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Front row, from left, Quinton Leveutte, Melissa Kocher and Angel Kobani; back row, Irnis Vazquez-Rodriguez enjoy a lesson in their sixth-grade violence prevention program at Oak Grove Middle School.
Middle school can be a breeding ground for bullying, especially as kids grow into themselves, hit puberty and are trying to navigate the awkward space between childhood and the teen years. That’s why the Juvenile Welfare Board, Pinellas County Schools and Gulf Coast Jewish Family Community Services have teamed up to provide the Violence Prevention Program with the Second Step curriculum to select Pinellas County schools.

“We identified 10 middle schools based on the level of special needs students, the disciplinary referral rates, in- and out-of-school suspension rates, academic performance and those kind of criterion,” said Rod Cyr, senior contract manager with the Juvenile Welfare Board.

These schools are Oak Grove Middle School in Clearwater, Tarpon Middle, Dunedin Highland Middle, Largo Middle, Pinellas Park Middle, Morgan Fitzgerald Middle in Largo, and Meadowlawn, Azalea, Tyrone, and John Hopkins Middle Schools in St. Petersburg. The JWB issued a request for proposals in 2002 and Gulf Coast Jewish Family Community Services won the bid. JFCS provides a prevention specialist that is assigned to each of the 10 schools, and that person basically becomes a member of the school staff as she or he delivers the evidence-based Second Step curriculum to all sixth grade students.

The curriculum consists of 15 50-minute lessons, Cyr said, that focus on violence prevention including bullying using tools such as workbooks, videos, role-playing and exercises in conflict resolution.

“The purpose of the program is to reduce in- and out-of-school suspensions, disciplinary referrals – particularly those referrals that center around aggression and antisocial and disruptive behaviors,” Cyr said. “The program consists of three major components. There’s a classroom component and then a small skill-building group component and then there’s the in-service training for school personnel.”

Last school year, a total of 3,301 sixth-graders received the curriculum, which the prevention specialist delivers once a week or every other week through one of their regular classes. At Oak Grove Middle, it’s during their social studies class. Jan Dice is the prevention specialist at Oak Grove. She said the lessons start with empathy and communication and working on socialization and being able to work in a group with other people. Empathy is huge, she said, and it’s important that kids can grasp the concept.

The program discusses different aspects of empathy and communication for the first five weeks, including working in groups, discussing friends and allies, considering different perspectives, disagreeing respectfully and being assertive. Then the class directly discusses bullying prevention for two weeks, including how to recognize a bully and how bystanders can help the situation. Next it discusses emotions for two weeks, including strategies to calm down, followed by two weeks of problem solving skills. The program concludes with four lessons about substance abuse.

The program is interactive, so the kids actively participate in the lessons, including a lot of role-playing. Nancy Friedman, director of the JFCS, said that the program gets the kids engaged by experimenting and being involved instead of just sitting and listening. Pam Hole, school guidance counselor at Oak Grove, said that the role-playing especially helps.

“You know, it’s interesting. The sixth-graders are not afraid to role play,” Hole said. “They love it. Sometimes I wonder if they’d be a little shy, but no, they raise their hands for it. Sometimes it’s a little bit more difficult when they get older and feel, ‘Well, that’s not cool.’”

Fran Bradshaw, social studies teacher for sixth-grade at Oak Grove agreed that sixth-grade is perfect for these kinds of lessons and the means of delivery.

“I make it clear that they’re teaching each other,” Dice said. “This is more effective than me teaching or Miss Bradford because it’s kids teaching kids.”

Another interactive aspect is a corresponding poster contest the kids do each fall, drawing posters to illustrate problems like bullying and substance abuse.

Hole said that bullying can be a problem in any middle school, but she thinks the prevention program in sixth-grade helps a lot. It’s important to have a program like that in place, she said, because bullying reaches its peak in middle school.

“I’m not sure they understand the consequences of bullying, but it increases in middle school and then kind of goes away again in high school,” Hole said.

To help stem this and other problems, Oak Grove assigns a guidance counselor to each grade, and that counselor stays with the same group of students, so the counselor assigned to the sixth-graders this year will therefore be next year’s seventh-grade counselor and so forth.

“So we have a good relationship with our kids, and they’ll come tell me immediately if something is going on,” Hole said. “Whereas the person being bullied won’t necessarily, but others tell me what they see.”

Bradford said that this and also having the prevention specialist is helpful because it gives other people students can confide in.

“The students are not as threatened by reporting to Jan if there is an incident or something that happened as they might be to school personnel,” Bradford said. “I think they feel safe.”

The program seems to be working, and the data shows that.

“We administer pre- and post-assessments to the students, and those assessments determine change in students’ perceptions as it relates to physical or verbal aggression, their perception of social exclusion, and their perception of social and emotional conflicts,” Cyr said. “And we’re able to measure change in that perception from the beginning of training to the end, and on average it’s about 81 to 95 percent of the students that are showing a positive change.”

Even though the program is still in its early weeks at Oak Grove this year, students are already taking away important lessons from the program. Quinton Leveutte, 11, and Zani Hannah, 12, both of Clearwater and sixth-graders at Oak Grove are both in Bradford’s social studies class. In one of Dice’s recent violence prevention lessons, Leveutte and Hannah acted out a role-playing skit together.

“(We’re learning) how to be kind to others and help prevent bullying,” Leveutte said.

In the previous week’s lesson, Leveutte said they learned about empathy and how to imagine being in another person’s shoes, which can help people to be more kind to one another.

“(I’m learning) not to dwell on things that happened a long time ago,” Hannah added.

In that day’s lesson, the students learned about points of view and that sometimes a situation may appear to be one way on the surface, but if they ask to get more information before jumping to conclusions, they may realize that the reality is something completely different. Hannah said it is important to find out the truth, and to do that they could just ask the people involved what happened instead of making assumptions.

The class watched a video with a series of situations where classmates and friends got into trouble because of false assumptions and misunderstanding others’ points of view. In one instance, a boy got mad at another boy because the first boy thought the second one had stolen his hat, but it turned out that it just looked a lot like the first boy’s hat.

Hannah said that he has experienced a similar situation and he helped mitigate the problem.

“I had one friend who thought it was his flash drive, and another boy took it and said it was the other boy’s flash drive, so then people tried to come up to him and tried to take it,” Hannah said. “So I said, ‘Wait,’ and asked people around who were there and said, ‘Was it my friend’s?’ And then I told him to go buy another one.”

So far, all the lessons they had been learning focused on some form of empathy, and both boys agreed that it is an important thing to learn.

“Because maybe when you get older you can have it and carry it on,” Hannah said.

“Empathy also can help you make friends,” Leveutte added. “Like if you help them, they might get to know you and you might end up being friends.”

For most students, these larger classes are sufficient in giving them the skills they need. But for those students who may need more intensive help, there are small groups available, whether it’s to deal with aggression and bullying problems or to work on being more assertive and self-confident.

These small, skill building groups meet for six weeks during one class period and typically consist of six or seven students who share a similar problem or area they need to work on, Cyr said.

“It might be emotional management, it might be anger management, it might be that they’ve gotten into a conflict with a teacher or another classmate,” Cyr said. “So they all have a similar issue that they’re trying to deal with. And it’s all voluntary. If they don’t want to do it, they don’t have to do it, and the parent has to consent to allow their child to participate in the program. Most do participate.”

For those with behavioral issues, sometimes they are given the choice between suspension and participating in the small group sessions, and usually the student and parent agree that the group is the better option.

“I’ve sat in on some of the groups, and they’re usually the ones sitting in the back of the room with their arms crossed,” Cyr said. “They’re under duress at first. But you visit it later, after three or four weeks, and then they’re like okay, it works.”

Friedman said that it’s important that parents know that the groups are not just for the challenging students.

“We’re really talking about strengthening communication skills,” Friedman said. “They’re skills probably a lot of our parents and grown-ups could use. They help people learn how to communicate their needs. I think a lot of what we see on both ends – the bullying and the victim – is frustration. The victim takes it and takes it until they’re so frustrated that they’re explosive, and the bully is probably frustrated because he doesn’t know how else to make friends. He doesn’t see the other person’s perspective. He thinks he’s being picked on.

So these classes sequentially teach how to communicate their needs and get them met effectively without getting in trouble. Most kids don’t come to school saying, ‘Today’s the day I’m going to get a referral.’”

Sometimes these are the kids who are picked on at home, she said. Other times they have low self-esteem or maybe they are overweight themselves or are short and therefore pick on others to try to steer any negative attention away from themselves, Hole said.

Friedman said that part of the talent of the staff is how good they are at forming these groups.

“Because you have all different levels of need,” Friedman said. “That’s why I say this is a prevention program. So you have students who are maybe a little bit quieter, taking a little more time to get their thoughts together.”

One wouldn’t want to put those students in with a bunch of more talkative, self-confident students because the first student could get overshadowed.

“The dynamic has to be right,” Friedman said. “So one group can work on being more assertive and getting better communication skills” while another could work on aggression issues or something else.

Each student in the small groups privately come up with a personal goal with Dice, and each week the group does a goal check. They rate their progress on a scale from 1 to 10 and say where they think they are on that scale each week. Then the group talks about the lesson of the week and ways they can start incorporating that lesson into their lives.

“Today I had an emotion management group,” Dice said, “and today we focused on anger management skills by talking about anger cues. I had a handout for that. And each kid talked about what cues they had. And then we went into self-talk and positive self-talk. They wrote a situation down where they were angry and how they handled it. What were the words they used, what were the things going through their head, and for a lot of them, it’s negative self-talk, which is fuel to the fire. So now, we’re trying to introduce the concept of positive self-talk and how that can help you de-escalate.”

The great thing about these groups, Friedman said, is that they often can prevent negative situations in the future.

“They give people tools to settle differences without getting physical, without getting verbally aggressive,” Friedman said.

Dice added that many of the parents she has talked to said they wished they had a program like this when they were younger.

The final component of the Violence Prevention Program is that the prevention specialist provides information, training and in-services to school personnel about bullying and the other issues the program touches on.

“Typically, they’ll work with 400 to 500 school personnel during in-service training and will share information that the teacher can use in the classroom to help de-escalate a situation or deal with a particular problem or at least identify that they’re here in the school and here to help them,” Cyr said. “‘So if Rod is disruptive in your class, invite him to my small-group skill building class and I’ll work with him and see if we can help.’”

This training also teaches the faculty and staff some of the key words and concepts that are used and discussed in the program, such as empathy and allies, and they are encouraged to use the terminology with their students. That way the entire school is using the same language and these concepts continue to be reinforced, Cyr said.

The teachers and counselors at Oak Grove agreed that all of them work hard to use these words and to enforce these lessons whenever possible with their students.

“I think (it helps) because everyone is speaking the same language,” Friedman said. “Because what Jan teaches the kids in sixth grade, you can see the teachers in eighth grade enforce that in the classrooms. And the maybe 20 percent of students who don’t seem to get it through the classroom, they become identified and go through the small groups. And it doesn’t have to happen just once. We sort of keep them on track, pulling them into the group again in seventh grade and again in eighth grade (if needed) and providing ongoing support as the environment changes for them.”

For the rare instances where bullying continues despite other attempts of intervention, it can be referred to the state attorney. Hole said she has done that a few times, but usually just the threat of it causes the students to back off. Hole added that the teachers and counselors also communicate and try to create class schedules in a way that if two students really don’t get along that they are not put into the same classes together. That can help avoid bad situations altogether.

All the components together are having a positive effect at Oak Grove and throughout the participating schools.

“In 2010-11 and ’11-’12, suspensions went down,” Friedman said. “The overall suspension rate. Last year, (Dice) served 353 students in the classroom, which is the general population getting the universal prevention in the curriculum, and she had 118 students in group. And 77 percent of the students in group had no referrals after their time in group, (which is good,) considering many of them come to her with a few referrals under their belt.”

Last school year, a total of 1,336 students participated in the small group sessions at the 10 participating middle schools, Cyr said. The small groups also do pre- and post-assessments that deal with their understanding of conflict resolution, he said.

“In the last year, 97 percent of the students increased their understanding of conflict resolution and personal relations,” Cyr said. “We also wanted to know, ‘What impact does it have on the children’s behavior?’ Do the disciplinary rates go down? And we found that about 61 percent of the students had no disciplinary issues after that, and again, these were the kids who were frequent fliers.”

Additionally, about 75 percent of the students from the small-groups had no in- or out-of-school suspensions during the school year after participating in the group, which is excellent, considering that at some of these schools, the likelihood of this group of students to have suspensions is upward of 50 percent, he said.

In addition to the statistics, there are the personal stories that show that it’s working. Just that day, Dice said one of the boys in her assertiveness group volunteered to participate in one of the role-playing skits. In another case, Friedman said that she sat in on a small group once and a girl told a story about how she and her friends witnessed a bully walk by and knock a boy’s books and papers out of his hands.

“(After) the bully left, the boy’s papers were still flying, and they ran down and they picked up all the papers and helped him,” Friedman said. “And what struck me was she said, ‘I felt like Superwoman.’ They felt they came to the rescue, they were allies. They were so empowered – you could see it on her face. So just letting them know they could do that. Like wow, this is a successful group and she feels so strong right now.”

This is the second of a two-part series on bullying.

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