By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — Many have experienced it: ostracization, name-calling, false rumors, even physical intimidation.
But if Traverse City Area Public Schools has its way, bullying will be a thing of the past after an anti-bullying program is implemented next school year.
Pioneered in the early 1980s by Norwegian researcher and psychologist Dan Olweus, the Olweus (pronounced ol-VEY-us) Bullying Prevention Program is the most-researched and best-known anti-bullying program in the world. It has been adopted in thousands of U.S. schools and dozens of countries, and has been proven to reduce bullying by 50 percent or more while improving peer relations and school climate.
"The goal is to reduce existing bullying and prevent future bullying, but schools are finding that students have a more positive outlook on school and schoolwork," said certified Olweus trainer Elizabeth Pine, adding that the program is recognized by the U.S. Departments of Education, Justice and Health and Human Services.
The program is implemented at the school, classroom and individual levels and includes methods to reach out to parents and the community for involvement and support.
"The most important piece is it establishes a weekly classroom meeting for every student," with suggested topics and supportive materials based on grade level, Pine said. "That's a huge piece because it also allows the schools to keep in place other (anti-bullying) pieces that are working and opens a window for them to have a structure that every classroom is using."
The program works by restructuring the social environment at school to reduce both opportunities and rewards for engaging in bullying behavior and to build a sense of community among students and adults. Positive, pro-social behaviors are encouraged and rewarded.
At its heart are four key principles: Adults at school should show warmth and positive interest and be involved in the students' lives; should set firm limits to unacceptable behavior; should consistently use nonphysical, nonhostile negative consequences when rules are broken; and should function as authorities and positive role models.
Schools are asked to adopt four specific rules about bullying: We will not bully others; we will try to help students who are bullied; we will try to include students who are left out; if we know that somebody is being bullied, we will tell an adult at school and an adult at home.
The rules cover both direct and indirect forms of bullying, including social isolation and intentional exclusion from peer groups.
"What we like about the program is it's a comprehensive program, which means it runs K-12," said Ryan Ranger, assistant principal at Traverse City West Middle School. "Kids will have the same terminology, the same consistency, year after year, and we'll be (building on) skills as they move up through the grades. Empathy and compassion might look different to a kindergartner and a senior. So with kindergarten lessons might start out with recognizing differences in people and learning to respect them, and hopefully by the time they're seniors they'll get a different point of view and a sense of empathy.
"The other thing we like about the program is it's kind of the gold standard of the anti-bullying program. We wanted it to involve parents, have a digital component. We felt as a whole Olweus did the best job of encompassing all those things in a way that made sense to students and our parents and would be something we could get the community behind."
Research has shown that the more the community supports it, the more successful the program is, said Pine, of Conflict Resolution Services in Traverse City, which has been working with the school district to assess, choose and implement an anti-bullying plan.
Pine said TCAPS' goal is to have all 18 schools trained this school year and to implement the program next year.
She said the first step is to train a committee at each school that includes parents and community members. In turn, the committee would train every adult in the school, from teachers and administrators to kitchen and bussing staff.
"That way everyone is using a common language, knows how to react when they see bullying, knows what the school policy is," she said. "This isn't a curriculum. This is a whole-school systems-change program. It provides a structure for each school to allow the curriculum to work. And to make the school safe."
Pine said interest in the program is so widespread that Conflict Resolution Services received a Rotary Charities program-planning grant to see how the program can be implemented throughout the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District.
It's a program that would have been welcomed by Amy Bourdon and her son, Corey, whose height — at least a foot taller than his peers — made him a target of bullying for years.
"It started when I was in kindergarten," said Corey, 13, an eighth-grader at Glen Lake Community Schools. "Everyone used to take my money and when I passed by, push my head in the wall. They called me freak. It happened every time I was on the bus."
"It was horrible. I felt so bad for him," recalled Bourdon, of Maple City, add that once, four kids tied Corey to a fence.
Pine said the Olweus program defines bullying, making it easier for students and adults to tell the difference between it and teasing.
"One of the biggest misconceptions is that bullying is a natural part of growing up," she said. "Kids being kids is one thing. Bullying goes beyond that. And having the Internet makes it so much more intense. Being called a name on Facebook, with hundreds of people seeing it, makes it really intense."
"What we're seeing more of at the secondary level is cyber bullying," said Ranger. "It's not our parents' bullying anymore. It looks a lot different. I think that bullies feel a little more secure behind a screen. Words can be fairly hurtful and they will wield words, videos, pictures to hurt people."
Pine said with changing state and federal laws, "liabilities are changing as to who is held responsible when bullying occurs."
"Schools are being proactive about putting programs into place so they can say, we're doing this and this and this," she said.
To learn more about the Olweus program or to make donations to support it, visit beyondbullyingmi.org.