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Building trust: schools respond to bullying

Lewistown NewsArgus Header

JH students Avery & Elise Crouse photo

By CHARLIE DENISON | Reporter - March 27, 2019 

Bullying has made its way into the headlines recently, both locally and nationally. It’s a problem that persists generation to generation, and it’s not going away.

Aware of this issue, Lewistown school counselors and administrators are doing what they can in hopes to prevent repeated incidents.

Teresa Majerus, a counselor at the Lewistown Junior High School and Fergus High School, said the schools have many programs focused on bullying prevention, such as Power Up and Speak Out, a Montana-made anti-bullying toolkit.

“Power Up and Speak Out emphasizes healthy peer and dating relationships,” Teresa said. “We talk about one-sided power and two-sided power. A teacher has one-sided power, an authority figure has one-sided power, but your peers do not.

If you are in a relationship with one-sided power, you should evaluate whether that’s a healthy relationship or not.”

Power Up and Speak Out helps to better define what bullying is and attempts to discover the underlying issues creating the behavior in the first place.

Teresa said teachers and administrators regularly talk with students about the different roles of bullying: victim, bully, bystander and upstander. 
“A bystander just stands there and watches, while an upstander interferes,  saying something like, ‘you need to leave that person alone,’” said Teresa.

They also talk about the different kinds of bullying: physical, verbal, emotional and cyber (threats or intimidation using computers, cell phones and social networking sites).

Lewis and Clark Principal Danny Wirtzberger is a fan of the programs used by the district. Inspired, he’s implemented an anti-bullying contract called “Dude…Be Nice.”

“When students sign this contract, they are committing to telling an adult if they are bullied,” he said. “The contract also states that they’ll tell an adult if they see bullying.” Wirtzberger also encourages students to be empathetic.

“We split students up into four groups and watched the movie, “Wonder,” then we had an open conversation about the film,” he said. “We talked about putting ourselves in other peoples’ shoes and discussed previous real-life situations that have happened to our students.” 
“Dude…Be Nice” emphasizes the importance of open dialogue, Wirtzberger said, which is something Teresa said is important for students of all ages. 

“We’re doing a lot to make sure the students are heard, and we encourage them to speak up and to be kind with one another,” she said. “There are many examples of this, whether it’s flannel boards, Renaissance cards or SOAR tickets to reward students for their positive behaviors.”

 

Never too Young

Garfield Elementary Principal Matt Lewis tries to prevent bullying at an early age. “I go into every classroom and work with the kindergartners and first graders on the ‘Zones of Regulation,’” he said.

“It’s a program that teaches kids how to regulate their emotions, how their emotions affect other peoples’ emotions and how that other person’s emotions are going to affect how they react to certain things. We work on strategies of what this looks like as it happens…we also talk about expected versus unexpected emotions, the size of the problem versus the size of the reaction and other aspects related to how to control your emotions. We explain how to verbalize these emotions and encourage the students to use their words. We want them to know they are a big piece of the solution and that our doors are always open.”

All schools in the district share this philosophy, said Teresa, and all the schools are making an effort, which makes it frustrating when complaints surface that the schools aren’t doing enough. “When people say we’re not doing anything it’s like they are taking a knife and stabbing us in the heart,” said Teresa.

 

Defining bullying 

According to Lewis and Clark Elementary Counselor Ashley Jenness, bullying is “negative, often repeated behavior with the intent to hurt someone physically or emotionally and involves an imbalance of power (physical size, social status) between the aggressor and the target.

Research collected by Teresa and Jenness shows the peak ages for bullying are between 10-15. “Sixth grade it’s building up, seventh and eighth grade it’s pretty rough, freshman year is rough and then individuals start to mature,” Teresa said.

Be that as it may, bullying can persist beyond the age of 15, as do other negative behaviors. Counselors and administrators try to focus on one issue at a time.

“We ask the students, ‘did someone cross your boundaries without your consent? Did someone make you feel uneasy, embarrassed, humiliated or hurt?” Teresa said.

FHS counselor Karen Durbin works with students in a similar fashion. She encourages students to be upstanders, not bystanders. This is especially the case with inappropriate memes on Facebook and Instagram: instead of ‘liking’ them, her Think Tank students take a different approach.

 

Digital discord

Superintendent Thom Peck says the digital age is one of the biggest challenges facing the schools today. “Social media has complicated everything,” he said. “A lot of the stuff happening on social media is attacks against people. Instead of people coming together to look at the problem they spend their time focused on the person, whoever it might be.”

“It’s also harder to monitor,” added LJHS Principal Scott Dubbs. “When someone is doing a bunch of stuff online to people, it’s hard to see what all is going on because it’s not right in front of us like it was on the school bus or in the playground.”

It’s also harder to get students to take responsibility for their actions when the actions are taking place online.

“Students often don’t see what they’re doing as harmful,” said Jenness.

In hopes to educate students on proper use of phones, Lewis and Clark computer applications teacher Chuck Cloud offers a twoweek long curriculum on appropriate use of devices and cyberbullying. 

“This includes devices and helps prepare students to use social media, including email,” said Wirtzberger. “We can always do better. I don’t want to paint the picture that we don’t have problems here, but we try to do our best. We’ve had three issues with bullying this year, which are three too many.”

 

A wounded community 

No matter where the bullying is coming from, Dubbs said what matters most is maintaining trust between administrators, teachers and students.

“None of these programs work if there isn’t trust in the relationship with kids,” he said. “I came to the district two and half years after the 1986 school shooting, and there were huge trust issues with students and staff. The climate was chaotic at best. I can tell you this: until you can get kids in an educational environment that’s comfortable and safe, they’re not going to participate. Similarly, we need to build trust with the parents and make sure the parents know what’s going on in the school.”

When these positive relationships aren’t sustained, Dubbs said, problems arise.

Trust takes a long time to build, and trauma takes a long time to heal.  Although the shooting at FHS took place 33 years ago, it remains in the minds of many. Durbin said this is the case time and time again.

“We have children of parents who were in the building at that time,” she said. “They remember, and they’re scared when they hear of a bomb threat or a potential shooting.”

This goes for the community as a whole, Dubbs said, as anytime a mass shooting occurs in the U.S. the trauma resurfaces, and, for some, so does the lack of trust. Durbin agrees.

“Our community remembers,” she said. “That’s why we hear from parents that they are keeping their children home when they are scared something could happen again.”

FHS Principal Tim Majerus agrees with Dubbs that it’s critical to establish trust right away.

“No program is going to be 100 percent effective, but it’s not going to be effective at all without trust, and that’s honestly where the counseling is really important,” he said. “Our counselors are doing an excellent job.”

 

Power in positivity

By and large, students are making good choices and are making the district proud, Durbin said. In the last few weeks alone, Durbin said she’s seen a shift, as there is more positive energy coming from the students than she’s seen all year.

“Kids are realizing the power they have to make things better,” she said.

Peck has also taken notice of this shift. He’s encouraged by it, but he’s also not surprised, as he’s continually impressed by the efforts of the administrators, teachers and students in his school district.

“I believe in the staff and I believe in our kids,” he said. “There is more being done here to solve bullying than anywhere else I’ve been.”

 

Reprinted with permission of the Lewistown NewsArgus.





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