TRAVERSE CITY — West Middle School wasn’t Dustin Henrichs’ favorite place.
Every day, other students picked on him, called him fat, nerd, loser, and shoved him around. Some even suggested he kill himself, he said.
“I was a zombie,” Henrichs said. “I would go to school and I wouldn’t talk, I wouldn’t really feel anything. I would come home and my parents would wonder what’s wrong and I just wouldn’t have anything to say because I wouldn’t really want to talk about it.”
“He started to build a wall to protect himself, and it never really came down,” said Dustin’s mother, Kari Henrichs.
Dustin Henrichs now is a senior at West Senior High School. He believes he has a better handle on bullying that’s long plagued him.
“I’ve always been picked on; it’s one of those things I’ve come to accept. I just don’t pay attention to it anymore,” Henrichs said.
Traverse City Area Public Schools administrators hope students no longer will have to face and accept such behavior from others. They’re rolling out a new anti-bullying program this month that aims to create a better environment and empowers teachers to follow through with bullying complaints.
TCAPS administrators worked for more than a year to implement the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. The program takes a holistic approach to tackling bullying by involving students, teachers and community members.
School administrators say it’s considered to be the top such program in the country, and based on Olweus’ own survey results, the program reduces reported incidents of bullying between 20 and 70 percent in schools.
It’s also designed to empower bystanders to be comfortable when they disrupt a bullying incident.
“We are really seeking to get those bystanders involved and be more proactive in reporting it, and the staff in dealing with it,” said Ryan Ranger, assistant principal at Traverse City West Middle School.
TCAPS officials signed onto the program for three years. It mandates a weekly 20- to 40-minute lesson for students.
TCAPS is the first public school district in the five-county northwestern Michigan region to implement the program. The Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District hopes to eventually add the program, too.
“Any incident is too much, and we certainly we know through research that we need to have students in a state where they’re ready to learn,” said Jason Jeffrey, TBAISD’s assistant superintendent for general and career & technical education. “If they’re uncomfortable or experiencing a state of anxiety because of bullying or another issue, they’re not ready to learn.”
In the past, TCAPS’ anti-bullying efforts have been criticized as retroactive and inconsistently implemented. Administrators are optimistic the new program will be different.
“If we can -- through training and improving peer relationships -- develop a culture that’s more positive, not only will we reduce incidents of bullying, but we can stop them before they start,” said Jason Jeffrey, assistant superintendent for general and career & technical education at TBAISD.
Central High School social worker Diane Burden is hopeful the new program can reduce cyberbullying -- the use of social media to threaten or harass -- that emerged over the past few years. She’s already seen some instances of others standing up for victims.
“On Facebook someone might say something derogatory or rude or condescending to somebody else, and then another Facebook person that’s on that strand might interrupt and say, ‘that’s really not cool,’” Burden said.
Henrichs said he tries to intervene when he sees others targeted by bullies.
“When kids see something ... wrong, they should stand up,” Henrichs said. “If there’s someone where it’s just starting for them and they don’t know how to deal with it, it’s better it happens with me because I can go through the motion, rather than someone else.”
Bullying may occur on the Internet, on the street, at school during recess, in the hallway and even in the classroom, Henrichs said.
Nancy Reye is all too familiar with bullying that occurs outside the classroom.
She said her son Tom was bullied as a third-grader at Old Mission Peninsula School, mostly during recess. Other boys continually challenged Tom to contests or dangerous activities, she said.
“There wasn’t enough supervision on the playground,” Reye said. “They’re left to their own devices, so there’s nobody catching these problems.”
Reye said school officials didn’t believe her son was being coerced into his actions, so she moved him to private school.
The Henrichs also had trouble getting the schools to acknowledge and follow through on their complaints.
“The one thing that makes me cringe is when I’m in talking to a teacher or a principal and I keep hearing over and over again, ‘my perception of the situation is…’” Kari Henrichs said. “When you’re trying to bring something up to them, their perception to me doesn’t mean squat. It’s the perception of the student who feels as if they’ve been bullied or unsafe in any way.”
She believes too few parents are willing to reprimand bullying behaviors at home.
“I think the schools are trying, I just don’t think there’s enough follow through,” she said. “If it’s not carried over to the home, it’s basically a slap on the wrist at school and they’re going to continue doing what they’re doing.”
The Olweus program aims to fix those and other low-supervision situations by training bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other non-teaching staff how to recognize and confront bullying situations.
Staff and students learn there’s more than just a bully and victim in each incident.
In one exercise, staff members watch a bullying skit and are asked to identify which role they took on in high school. More than 90 percent of the Central High School staff identified with bystanders, demonstrating just how much of a population is affected by but doesn’t directly participate in bullying.
“It gives you a visual of, ‘Wow, these people are all being impacted by this behavior’,” Burden said. “That exercise by itself is empowering to bystanders because bystanders are the majority, and the people involved are the minority. Bystanders have a lot more power than they realize.”
Students voiced a bit of skepticism.
“I think they’ve been trying to teach us bullying is bad since elementary school, and if they haven’t gotten it through by then ... they’re not going to be obliged to change,” said Casey Raphael, a West senior and Henrichs’ friend. “We know that it’s bad.”
Past anti-bullying programs haven’t spurred a substantive change in school bullying, Henrichs said.
“Many kids agree with the program and what it represents, it’s just that so many people will never have to change. A program will always change things for a couple of days, but then it picks right back up,” he said.
Even younger students aren’t so sure if the news classes will make a difference.
“Honestly, I think it helps the people who are being bullied, but not so much the people who are doing the bullying because I still see it all the time,” said Ellie Childs, 13, a student at West Middle School, which started anti-bullying classes in September.
But school officials contend the focus isn’t on bullies themselves.
“The program isn’t going to fix bullies,” said Traverse City Central High School assistant principal Jay Larner. “The intent of the program is to empower the 90 percent of students who are not generally engaged in any sort of bullying act so they can support the 10 percent who are.”