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Educators' conference focuses on bullying

| Saturday, April 28, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

More than 200 educators from Allegheny County participated in a program this week to learn how to begin 'bully-proofing' their schools, a process that could help prevent uncontrolled school violence in the future.

But experts in the field of student discipline and social work say bully-proofing a school is not as simple as it was in the past because the definition of a bully and bullying behavior has dramatically changed.

James Bozigar, coordinator of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit School Safety Net Program, said the goal of the program is not to merely make adjustments in the behavior of a handful of problem students, but to change the attitude of entire schools.

'We are trying to work with schools to change the climate so aggressive and abusive behavior is no longer tolerated,' Bozigar said. '(We want to) make everyone responsible.'

For the Friday program, Bozigar enlisted the help of two educators from Cherry Creek School District in Denver, who have more than 10 years' experience in bully-proofing their own school district.

Ruth Most and Marla Bonds conducted their own sections of the program, with Most addressing bullying problems in elementary schools and Bonds discussing problems in middle schools.

Bullying primarily is about an imbalance of power, Most said, including physical, psychological and intellectual power. Bullies will usually have more power than their victims and will use this to dominate and intimidate.

The strongest weapon against bullying, according to the program, is to set a culture and climate throughout a school that will not accept bullying as acceptable behavior.

Karen Lewis, a first-grade teacher in Moon Area School District, said for bully-proofing to work, the bullies have to know that the school administration is serious.

'We have to become aggressive,' Lewis said. 'They (the bullies) have to know that we think anything - as little as name-calling - has to be addressed.'

Lewis said for a plan of a schoolwide culture to work, it must have the support and cooperation of the entire staff and faculty, which she said begins with events such as yesterday's.

'It's good to see we're taking this seriously, but now where do we go from here• You need 100 percent of the staff on this,' she said.

Linda Marcolini, assistant principal at West Junior High School in the Woodland Hills School District, said she would be taking ideas from the program back to other administrators at her school in the hopes that an effective bully-proofing program can be established there.

Marcolini said she believes that bullies today are not only of different personality, they are more aggressive, too. Furthermore, the victims tend to not let comments and actions roll off their backs as much.

'Before, people would just say things and get it off their chests, but that has changed,' she said.

She said the approach at West Junior High School is to encourage students to report any type of bullying behavior, no matter how minor.

Perpetrators in some of the last two years' school shootings have had histories of being bullied, and some school administrators have suggested that the violence might have been prevented had the bullying been curtailed early on.

'No matter how small (an offense), let us know,' Marcolini said. 'We take everything seriously, whatever comes through.'

According to Most, the stereotypical bully of the past - with low self-esteem, few friends and poor self-image - is getting replaced gradually with the bully who actually is very confident, is a prominent leader among his or her peers and is at least an average student if not also a high achiever.

Alice Hirsch, assistant superintendent at Deer Lakes School District, said she found the material on how to deal with bullying to be beneficial, but that she disagreed that bullies have changed.

'I think the way we view them may have changed,' Hirsch said. '(A bully probably) has had problems in their lives ... or hasn't had a wholesome environment. That's what we need to address.'

One feature of yesterday's program was identifying victims of bullying. Three types were identified: the passive victim who is nonassertive and submissive; the provocative victim who is disruptive and argumentative; and the vicarious victim who tends to feel vulnerable as a target and will stay close to a bully and will not take a stand out of fear.

Hirsch, who has also served as director of special education in the Mt. Lebanon School District, said regardless of what type of victim a child is, no one deserves to be bullied and the method for curing the problem is addressing the underlying problems in the bullies.

Bozigar said this year's program had a marked increase in participants from last year's event, which drew only about 45 educators.

He said by having the increased participation, more schools hopefully will take steps toward bully-proofing their environments and creating a safer culture within the student communities.

But he cautioned that the creation of such a culture is not an immediate change.

Rox Serrao, principal of Dorseyville Middle School in the Fox Chapel Area School District, agreed, saying the key to getting the students to conform to the bully-free culture is working with them in small groups over a long period of time.

Serrao said students must feel comfortable enough with and have enough faith in the administration that they can come forth and point out where bullying is occurring, and that will take time and effort.

'It's a process, not an event,' he said.

The bully-proofing program has been in operation in the Denver area for nearly 10 years, according to Bozigar.

Most said the effects of the program can be seen within Cherry Creek schools, where incidents of bullying and violence in the school and on the playground have decreased.

Joseph J. McCallister can be reached at jmccallister@tribweb.com or (412) 380-8536.

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