Schools give anti-bullying program high marks
Emily Zern believes Baldwin-Whitehall's J.E. Harrison Middle School is a better place, thanks to an anti-bullying program.
"Now students know, if you are getting bullied, you can go talk to people," the eighth-grader said. "They do that, and it gets stopped quicker."
Baldwin-Whitehall is one of many local school districts that have implemented anti-bullying programs in recent years after studies showed the perpetrators of major school violence incidents — including the Columbine High School shooters in Littleton, Colo. — were victims of bullying.
Harrison had its own scare in spring 2000, when a student brought a loaded, 12-gauge shotgun to the school.
"This was a good student who just had been picked on, and he essentially felt like this was the only way he could solve this problem, so we felt we had to deal with this," said Mike Sears, Harrison vice principal.
The following fall, Baldwin-Whitehall introduced a districtwide anti-bullying program based on the research and teachings of Norwegian scholar Dan Olweus, considered by many to be the world's leading authority on bullying problems in schools.
Olweus has been researching the subject since 1970. But, according to Jim Bozigar, safe schools coordinator with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, "it wasn't until the 1990s that school districts became concerned about it."
School officials say it is too early to generate objective evaluations of how effective their anti-bullying programs are but anecdotal evidence suggests the efforts are paying off.
Donna Milanovich, Baldwin-Whitehall assistant superintendent, said no statistical assessment has been done to evaluate the program's effectiveness, but it is clear that the level of awareness of bullying's impact has increased dramatically.
"We know by the number of children and adults reporting problems," she said. "It's been very positive for us."
Bozigar said anti-bullying efforts offer benefits beyond preventing school violence. "You see an improvement in attendance and academic performance, and you see a decrease in vandalism," he said.
Bozigar said six districts already work with the AIU on implementing the Olweus program, and a dozen more are adding it this year.
He said almost every district in Allegheny County has some kind of anti-bullying program.
The Olweus program includes training teachers and school personnel in how to deal with bullying and also involves working with parents, so children get a consistent anti-bullying message in school and at home.
Bozigar said research indicates teachers only witness about 5 percent of bullying, so it is vital for students — who witness much more — to do two things:
Bozigar said Pennsylvania is the first state — through its Safe Schools program and grants — to promote bully prevention on a systematic basis.
Bozigar said the Olweus program has been proved effective. "Dr. Olweus' research shows that within six months you usually reduce the bullying by 50 percent," he said. "These are research-based programs that, if you implement them, they are going to work."
Pamela Riley, executive director of Students Against Violence Everywhere, a national organization involved in peer-to-peer safety efforts in schools, said the state's Safe Schools program shows Pennsylvania's government is serious about the issue.
She said school shooting incidents have decreased drastically nationwide in the least few years — from 25 in 1998-99 to just three in the last school year — but anti-bullying programs nonetheless are increasingly prominent.
"There's a recognition that school violence is more than school shootings," Riley said. "It's anything that jeopardizes the teaching and learning process."
She said a recent Students Against Violence Everywhere survey indicates that eight of 10 teenagers said they would report bullying if they saw it happening.
Riley said that attitude represents a marked change from when she was a high school principal in the early 1990s and "the code of silence among young people was very strong."
"They're telling me, 'We're seeing what can happen to other schools, and we're willing to stand up,'" she said. "I think that's encouraging."