Bullying: Efforts may be paying off

Ridgefield has put up an all-out effort to combat bullying, and it seems to be working.

A nine-school, district-wide attempt to educate students, in small groups, about the negative consequences of bullying has lowered the number of disciplinary incidents at all three levels — elementary, middle and high school — over the last school year.

Four of the six elementary school principals, along with middle school principals Martin Fiedler and Tim Salem, presented the 2012-2013 discipline data report to the Board of Education on Dec. 9, discussing their unified positive behavior intervention system and advisory programs.

The principals told the board that the model has them collaborating everyday to create effective intervention techniques and skills that help students progress through different levels of the education system.

“It begins with behavior goal setting at the elementary level,” said Barlow Mountain Principal Rebecca Pembrook. “From elementary it goes to middle school and then all the way up to the high school and it builds at each level — it’s an all-school, all-district intervention program.”

In-school suspension numbers at the middle schools shot down from nine in 2011-2012 to none in 2012-2013, while the total number of suspensions at the high school decreased from 44 to 20.

More importantly, the number of “potential bullying” disciplinary events shrunk from six to three at the elementary level; 10 to none at the middle schools; and 28 to seven at the high school.

Illegal substances

Incidents involving drugs, alcohol or tobacco at the high school also dipped — from 23 to 13.

The district is required by state law to report all offenses that result in suspensions, expulsion, and all accidents involving drug, alcohol or weapons.

In 2012-2013, RHS mandated three counseling sessions with a school psychologist or social worker, one of which the student’s parents must also attend, following a suspension for drugs or alcohol.

“We credit this strategy with a reduction in repeat offenses,” the report’s high school conclusion said.

“The potential bullying category demonstrates a dramatic decrease from  28 to seven events and is mainly attributed to an increased focus on safe school climate, a heightened awareness and proactive approach on the part of all staff members and our advisory program.”

There were three weapons-related disciplinary events at the high school and none at the middle school in 2012-2013, which was at par with the previous school year.

The schools must report “all serious offenses” as defined by the state’s department of education, which include more than 100 different violations that range from robbery, sexual harassment and fighting to attempted suicide, vandalism and plagiarism.

The number of serious incidents at the high school went down from 19 to 10.

What is not reported during these incidents is student names, the victim names or identity number, and any criminal charges that accompany the school sanction.

Five basic tools

The five basic tools teachers, as well as paraprofessionals, staff members and administrators, promote amongst the student population, as part of the cross-school intervention system, are cooperation, assertion, reflection, empathy, and self control.

“We labeled it CARES,” said Farmingville Principal Susan Gately. “It sets a community tone and the message is given at all three levels, at all nine schools.”

The board was impressed with the results in school, but wondered if the trend of positive behavior continued outside of school walls.

“What is the cyber bullying like at the elementary and middle school level?” asked board member Irene Burgess. “Are you seeing the Facebook fights or the Instagram photos coming into the classroom — is that a problem yet?”

Dr. Fiedler said cyber bullying was not a problem at East Ridge and Ms. Gately added that it wasn’t a problem at Farmingville either.

Mr. Salem couldn’t recall an incident of cyber bullying at Scotts Ridge, but explained that the model targeted school climate and focused on what the principals could control.

“This is the most holistic approach to behavior I’ve seen in my 20-plus years as an educator,” he said. “I meet with each grade and talk about expectations on day one of each year, so by the time the student is in eighth grade, he or she has heard the message and really gets it.”

He said the advisory program at his school, as well as the other eight, sets up an “advisory period” that acts as a mandatory class for 12 different students to participate in per day.

In the advisory period, the students and Mr. Salem discuss topics as broad as school work and life at home, while instilling the tools of positive behavior to handle certain situations that would otherwise produce negative consequences.

“The expectations on day one are stated and then they’re repeated from there through the advisory groups,” he said. “We have to put the cards on the table to teach them the severity of bullying.”

Board member Chris Murray asked, “Are the kids seeking out adults more than they have in the past with this model?”

Mr. Salem said the “small-group approach” eliminates isolation by building a support group and giving students two sources for positive reinforcement — adults and their peers.

Dr. Fiedler added, “it’s very difficult to feel alone now.”

He said the need to seek out an adult is less because the students’ concerns are being addressed through the advisory period.

Despite its success, he said the need for an all-district intervention method at the middle school will always be there.

“Middle school students do silly things without even thinking twice about it,” he said. “Our job is to point out their negative behavior and turn it around and create something positive.”

Stephanie Parker and Robert Slavinsky, assistant principals at the high school, discussed behavioral trends at the district’s largest school.

Addressing the issue of cyber bullying, Mr. Slavinsky said part of the school’s advisory program is a social media component that teaches students how to be responsible on the Internet.

“We have a proactive culture of accountability that’s great for our school’s culture and the student’s future because it teaches them to make good choices with technology,” he added. “It’s played a major role in our advisory program over the last two years and it’s been really beneficial for all parties involved.”

The number of cyber bullying incidents were not listed in the report.

Mr. Slavinsky said communication between the students and the staff has been crucial to the program’s success thus far, but he also praised the cooperation from parents, who he said played a fundamental role in addressing behavioral concerns.

“The more cooperative we can get the parents to be, the better,” he said. “They’re critical in stopping any issue before it gets too critical and a third party, like the police, has to get involved.”

Ms. Parker said the district “working as one big team” has made a substantial difference in the improvement of behavior as well as school climate.

“The continuity between all three levels is much more aligned than it ever has been and that’s great because there’s no awkward transition for the kids,” she confirmed. “They come in knowing what to do because they’ve heard it now over and over again at the middle school level.”

As a result of the program, the high school’s largest area of infraction — or negative behavior — is students parking without a parking sticker or forgetting to have their student identification cards on them at all times, she said.

“We prefer those instances a lot more than fighting or bullying,” she said.

Assistant superintendent Kimberly Beck added she has attended advisory periods at different schools and complimented the program’s cohesiveness across all levels.

“It’s not going to be a cure-all,” she said. “But it will provide many avenues for administrators to recognize positive behavior and that will teach students to avoid the negative consequences that surround bad behavior.”

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  • random outcast ERMS student

    Um, as an erms student I have to say that no one really likes advisory. Most of us agree that it is a stupid waste of time. Some of us are stuck with teachers we don’t like, while some kids get nice teachers that give them donuts and stuff. They did have us discuss concerns, like how crappy the lunch is and how we never have enough time to eat. However, as someone with not very many friends, I was stuck in a random group of kids I didn’t really know. I am shy and have trouble opening up to people so it’s rather uncomfortable for me. And what “Dr. Fiedler added, “it’s very difficult to feel alone now.”” isn’t really true. As I said before, I don’t have very many friends and only two of them are on my team/core classes. Since we keep doing group/partner work it sucks cause I’m usually the only one without a partner. I often feel alone. Advisory is just another stupid excuse that the school district thinks will help stop bullying but it doesn’t. I’ll admit, there really isn’t much bullying at all. But people do still say things. Like “ugh ____ is so annoying” or “yeah she’s like the ugliest girl in school.” And also exclusion. All the rich, popular, pretty, & athletic kids exclude us outsiders. Not to mention the fact that they’re shallow and not the smartest. Anyway, sorry this turned into a rant but all this stuff about advisory is BS.

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