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Organizers hope St. Gabriel anti-bullying program has unifying effect

| Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Randy Jarosz | For The South Hills Record
Students look on as doves are released during an anti-bullying program at St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin School.

The nearly 410 students at St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin School stood holding hands in a circle rounding the upper parking lot on Friday.

Their classmates shared messages of unity and the importance of coming together as “one proud Gator family” under the new school motto “Stand up. Be you. Be proud. Be true.”

The tunes of “You raise me up” played softly in the background as 32 white doves were released into the sky — one or two at a time.

On the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, a day on which the Roman Catholic Church recognizes St. Francis who had a love for animals, the Whitehall school kicked off its bullying prevention program with an event that included songs, the message of peace and a church service.

“We all have to have been bullied at some point in our lives,” said eighth-grader Arlen Hooks, 13, student council president. “We want everyone to know that there's always someone to talk to.”

This year, St. Gabriel School is using the research-based Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, which was founded by a Norway professor more than 35 years ago and is used in schools internationally. The program uses classroom meetings among peers and schoolwide support and is even geared to reach into the community to reduce the number of bullying and peer conflict incidents in the schools.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh introduced Catholic schools in the region to the program in the spring, St. Gabriel Principal Barbara Sawyer said. The Diocese provided leadership and training to teachers and administrators, she said.

Class meetings are held every Monday at St. Gabriel School, where students and teachers discuss peer conflicts and ways to help resolve them.

“It's prevalent in today's society. Cyber bullying has helped it become more pronounced,” Sawyer said.

Members of the St. Gabriel student council — which consists of middle-school aged students — are helping to lead the bullying prevention program.

The only way to stop bullying in their school was to first learn what bullying is, the students said.

“It's making anyone feel less than who they are,” said eighth-grader Carly Cygrymus, 13, student council vice president. “Some kids need to realize that it's a very serious issue.”

The student council members created the schoolwide motto and designed T-shirts to share the message with their classmates. It will be up to the upper classmen, mostly, to energize the younger students to keep the message going all school year, said eighth-grader Robbie Miller, 13, member of the student council leadership committee.

Standing up to bullies is important, they said, just as much as being yourself and feeling that it's OK to express your feelings and ideas.

“Be yourself. In the end, you're only going to have you. Just embrace it,” Carly said.

“No matter where you come from, you should always be proud to be who you are,” Arlen said.

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

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