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Assemblies deliver anti-bullying message

| Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 9:35 p.m.
Thomas Jefferson High School freshman Josh Kramer, left, watches intently, as “Mr. Mojo,” Travis Brown, talks with the school's ninth and tenth graders about bullying prevention during an assembly on Friday as part of a districtwide kickoff of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record
Thomas Jefferson High School freshman Alana Solomon performs Taylor Swift’s “Mean” for students at McClellan Elementary School during an assembly last week as part of a districtwide kickoff of a bullying prevention program. Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record
Members of Thomas Jefferson High School’s concert choir, from left, Rachel Battle, Carly Nolan, Ashley Adams and Glenna Chandler, perform “Some Nights” by Fun alongside the percussion band during an assembly on Friday as part of a districtwide kickoff of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record
“Mr. Mojo,” Travis Brown, talks with ninth and tenth graders at Thomas Jefferson High School about bullying prevention during an assembly on Friday as part of a districtwide kickoff of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record
Thomas Jefferson High School’s concert choir members Dani Pinneri, left, and Jana Withers dance as they perform “Some Nights” by Fun alongside the percussion band during an assembly on Friday as part of a districtwide kickoff of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record

There were the games of “Mojo says,” a principal dressed up like Batman, students dancing to their own version of PSY's “Gangnam Style” and videos recounting the tales of a group of middle school students who had themselves been bullied.

Each one was different, but the message was the same: Bullying is not allowed here.

Energetic assemblies — filled with music, student performances and guest speakers — at all five schools in West Jefferson Hills last week helped to kick off the districtwide roll-out of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. The assemblies were coupled with parent meetings at each school and weeklong introductions to the program.

“The enthusiasm here is great. The staff buy-in has been tremendous and the kids are just adorable,” said Olweus trainer and consultant Pamela Countouris, who attended the district's kick-off events last week.

A goal for the West Jefferson Hills School District during the 2011-12 school year was to find a bullying prevention program that would mesh with the needs of the district and create a consistent message for students no matter what school they attend, acting assistant superintendent Hamsini Rajgopal said. The Olweus program was selected because it includes participation from all parties — the individual, community, classroom and schoolwide, she said.

“There's consistency there. From the elementary to the middle school to the high school — it's the same message,” Rajgopal said. “It takes everybody working together for it to be successful.”

“Intensive” administrative training began during the summer and “core” groups were formed for each school to help lead the program in that building.

The program centers around weekly classroom meetings, where students have the opportunity to discuss concerns about problems they're having or observing in their school, administrators said. These will be held on a selected day at each of the district schools for between 15 to 25 minutes.

The program also relies on the “bystander,” or those standing around watching the bullying occur, to step up and intervene and report the incidents and stop the peer conflicts as they arise, leaders said.

“The only component that's going to change this is the bystander,” Thomas Jefferson High School Principal Timothy Haselhoff said. “The way you prevent (bullying) is by getting people on board and having them show respect.”

This, requires a change in culture and the way students and parents function.

“It's a changing of the mindset,” McClellan Elementary Principal Justin Liberatore said. “Step in, don't be that bystander. You're just as bad as the bully if you're not stopping it.”

Surveys were given to students to show where and how bullying is occurring in each schools. At McClellan, 21 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys said they felt they had been bullied at some point, Liberatore said.

The “hot spot” where bullying occurred was at recess, he said.

These numbers were shared with the students to show them why this program is important.

“This isn't just something that we're doing for no reason,” Liberatore said.

At Pleasant Hills Middle School, 80 to 90 percent of the kids reported feeling bad and wanted to help when they saw that someone had been bullied, social studies teacher and building Olweus coordinator Adam Zunic said.

“They want to do something, they just don't know how,” he said.

Bullying occurred in the “unstructured time” in the stairwells, hallways and at lunch — mostly in the form of spreading rumors and gossip, the survey results showed.

The district's five schools — McClellan, Jefferson and Gill Hall elementaries, Pleasant Hills Middle School and Thomas Jefferson High School — each had their own way of introducing the program to the students.

A speaker from Indiana, Travis Brown, also known as “Mr. Mojo,” participated in assemblies at Thomas Jefferson High School and Pleasant Hills Middle School last week where he talked to student about the dangers of bullying — in a fun, “cool,” hip way.

Brown had students on their feet, playing listening games and learning the meaning behind terms like “Mojo swag,” “Mojo haters” and “Mojo up” — his ways to promote positive behavior in schools.

Students later used those terms — prefaced with hashtags — on Facebook and Twitter to talk about the assembly and student behavior.

Words can make a big difference in someone's life, Brown said.

“Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt – until one day they did,” Brown said. “You have the power to help people and you have the power to hurt people, simply by the words you use.”

A performance of Fun's “Some Nights” by the Thomas Jefferson concert choir and percussion band capped off the kick-off assemblies at the school. That song is the motto for Thomas Jefferson's kick-off.

“It talks about – what do I stand for? Are you going to support the bully or the person being bullied?” Haselhoff said.

Bully prevention videos were shown to students each morning during their announcements last week at Pleasant Hills Middle School, Zunic said.

One video was student produced and became a semi-finalist in a national bullying prevention contest, Zunic said. Another showcased three Pleasant Hills Middle School students who shared their stories of being bullied.

“It was very powerful and emotional,” Zunic said.

Thomas Jefferson freshman Alana Solomon performed Taylor Swift songs, such as “Mean” for students at McClellan Elementary and shared her story of being excluded as a seventh-grader at Pleasant Hills Middle School.

“Sometimes you can't trust someone as much as you think that you can,” Solomon said. “You get hurt. You really don't know what to do.”

Solomon told the youngsters that she sought help from adults after her supposed best friends “ganged-up” on her as a middle schooler. The students later became friends again, but it became a learning experience for her, Solomon said.

“It takes time for the wounds to heal,” she said.

McClellan's theme for its bullying prevention kick-off was, “Be a hero, not a bully.”

Liberatore dressed up in a Batman costume and talked to students about becoming a hero to their classmates by stepping in and stopping bullying.

“In the super hero movies, there's always people standing around, looking up, waiting for a hero to come,” Liberatore said. “We want you to be that hero.”

Students in each grade level at Jefferson Elementary performed their own “bully free” version of popular songs — such as “Bully Busters” — for their classmates during the school's kickoff.

“Without the kids having some ownership, it's not going to work,” Principal Chris Very said. “This is extremely important. All the kids needs to come to a safe, caring environment.”

Parent meetings also highlighted the week, where as many as 200 people lined up to learn about the new program.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or

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