Compassionate Culture Outshines Bullying in Southern Regional, Stafford Schools

By DAVID BIGGY | Jun 14, 2019
Courtesy of: Stafford School District CARE BUILDING: Project Team is one of many initiatives within the Stafford Township School District to promote anti-bullying lessons.

Stafford Township — Bullying, intimidation and harassment is a sensitive topic, one which always draws an opinion from somebody and for many, a deep emotional reaction. While it’s a prevalent subject in today’s society, it’s not one easily discussed. Undoubtedly, some incidents go unnoticed within many circles.

Within the Stafford Township and Southern Regional school districts, these three words are very much in mind among administrators, teachers, support staff, athletic coaches, club advisers and security personnel. They have to be, because the New Jersey Department of Education requires school districts to report such incidents.

“The state instituted HIB reporting for the 2013-14 school year and it really tightened up the protocol on dealing with repetitive incidents,” said Southern Regional Superintendent Craig Henry, the overseer to all things within the district comprising of some 3,000 high school and middle school students. “At the time, it didn’t bother me that we had to formalize and put a name to our reporting efforts. We’ve always monitored these types of incidents and took action to minimize their impact. So it just took a little to get used to with regard to generating reports for the state.

“The one good part about the changes to the reporting is we’ve been able to see, quantitatively, how what we do here affects those numbers of incidents, and we’ve absolutely seen a drop in our numbers of incidents investigated. But even one is too many, so we take them all seriously.”

Fortunately, Henry and the Southern Regional Board of Education, which is briefed by the superintendent on every incident investigated each month, don’t have to worry too much about the state of its student body in any of the district’s buildings. During the 2016-17 year, 19 investigations yielded eight confirmed HIB incidents, while the following year 12 of 14 incidents were confirmed. From September through December for this school year, only one incident of six investigations had been confirmed.

Meanwhile in the Stafford district, which comprises of five buildings and about 2,400 students from prekindergarten through sixth-grade, Student Pupil Services Director David Ytreboe has logged similar numbers, with the number of confirmed incidents far fewer. During the past three school years through May 31, Ytreboe has confirmed six incidents of 31 investigations; only one of nine for this year. Not surprising, investigations of incidents involving fifth- and sixth-graders is much higher compared to those involving students in fourth-grade or below. Boys are three times as likely to be involved, he said.

“Looking at the data and seeing six incidents, and considering we’re in school for nine months and there are 2,400 students in the district, those numbers are small,” he said. “And going even further, sometimes we get some tricky incidents. One of ours involved one student claiming he was bullied by four different kids, so we had to do four separate investigations. Given the numbers of interactions between all the kids, it seems we’re doing well.”

But why the two districts are doing well isn’t as simple as pointing to one thing or another. Rather, it seems there are many contributing factors – a web of connective pieces among the administrators, teachers and support staff, students, the many academic programs and extra-curricular activities, and even specific initiatives used to help develop anti-bullying awareness.

What It Is, What It Isn’t

Once upon a time, the protocol for investigations centering on bullying, intimidation and harassment were not as well-defined as they are now. When Stafford Intermediate School Principal Stephanie Bush was the director for the Oxycocus School – the district’s prekindergarten comprising 3- and 4-year-olds – she had to get involved with the investigation of an incident that seemed very much like an innocent thing.

“This one little girl asked another girl in class, ‘Why are you so big?’ And the mother called and said her daughter was being bullied,” Bush recalled. “But all it turned out to be was one small girl was curious as to why somebody her age was twice her size. It was a natural question for a girl her age. But because the way the code was written at the time, I had to go through a whole HIB investigation. Now, the state has realized there’s no cookie-cutter to these things.”

Every year, Ytreboe provides a handout for teachers to give to parents outlining what the NJDOE defines as bullying, intimidation and harassment. It is not as simple as one student calling another a derogatory name. First, the “meanness,” as Ytreboe refers to it, must have a pattern, starting with any gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or electronic communication, which must be motivated by either an actual or perceived characteristic. Secondly, the incident can take place on school property, at a school-sponsored function, on a school bus or off school grounds, such as a bus stop. But the hinge factor is the extent of the damage.

“The biggest factor is whether the incident has been disruptive to the other student’s life, physically or emotionally,” he said. “It has to disrupt or interfere with the orderly operation of the school, or rights of another student. If it doesn’t interfere with the student’s education, to where he or she doesn’t want to attend school or is afraid to go to class, it’s not defined as HIB. And there has to be intent.”

Of the incidents investigated throughout a school year, within both the Stafford and Southern districts, most are deemed unconfirmed as an HIB incident.

“Things can happen anywhere and we address each situation independently,” said Robert Schoka, Southern’s affirmative action officer and HIB coordinator. “Every situation has a different story to it. Most of the time it’s a matter of tracing it back to a conflict that went unresolved, or a kid not thinking before saying something to another student. But we look at the data non-stop and try to identify areas where we can improve things.”

For as much as he may want to see more zeroes on the board with regard to numbers of investigations, as well as confirmed incidents, he knows conflict is going to occur.

“When you have 2,000 kids in one space and 1,000 in another, you’re always going to have isolated conflicts,” he said. “But I know, in our district, we do a lot to minimize those conflicts, and people at all levels are involved in making that happen. A lot of times, our kids take care of each other and police each other.”

Culture of Care’ Personified

It’s true. Some potential bullying, intimidation and harassment situations can fly under the radar, festering in spots not easily detected by those in authority. That’s where the students come in, said Southern junior Emily Raney, part of the Student, Team-Building, Youth, Leadership, Experience (STYLE) peer leadership group advised by teacher Michael Benson.

“I’ve been taught to step in if you see somebody being bullied and harassed, and I’ve had to do it sometimes,” said Raney, who also is part of Henry’s select group dubbed “Students 2 Students,” which travels to several Stafford Township schools during the year as part of a mentoring effort for younger students. “I’ve gotten in-between fights and told other students, ‘You need to step back and realize what you’re doing, because you’re not being a role model.’ Sometimes, preventing a bigger incident comes down to us, the students. But for the most part, we have a very encouraging, positive environment here at Southern.”

For as much as Southern Regional remains a district very much steered by its students – Henry and the rest of the administrators encourage student involvement to be the catalyst for positive effect on campus – the adults, at times, absolutely have to provide better, more experienced guidance. Benson said there’s no place like Southern for that kind of mentoring.

“We have a very strong community at Southern,” said Benson, who not only has been part of the Southern district for 30 years but also served on the Stafford Township Board of Education for many years. “I’ve taught in other districts, and they’re good districts. But Southern really is a community in which the teachers, staff and students look out for others. There’s a huge respect factor in the district. And because the teachers and administrators treat the students with respect, they in turn treat everybody else with respect. It’s an expectation in this district that’s mostly unwritten but known. Most of the students don’t have to be told. Most of them get it, or learn it from other students.

“We have a tremendous student body, and I often remind the students I see every day that there’s no start or end point in the circle. We’re all part of it. That’s just part of the Southern experience.”

That “Southern experience” generates not only solid leaders among its student body, but also students who find their place to shine and carry their compassion, understanding and willingness to encourage others with them into the future. Janelle Gosline, a former Southern STYLE leader now teaching at the Long Beach Island Grade School, said her “Southern experience” taught her to look for students who felt alone, to make them feel welcomed and important.

“Two of the pillars of STYLE are inclusiveness and awareness,” said Gosline, who also was part of the Interact Club at Southern. “If you feel comfortable in an environment, you want to help other students feel the same way. If you believe you belong, there’s a fire to make sure everybody else belongs in some way. Everything I learned at Southern developed me for life. At Southern, there’s a broader focus on developing people, not just an engineer, doctor or teacher. There’s a way for everybody to get involved, and I definitely believe that contributes to the caring community Southern is.”

Of course, developing a highly compassionate, caring society isn’t a one-man or one-woman show. Every teacher, administrator, support staff member, coach and adviser is part of the process in generating a positive environment for the students, said Susan Craig, the high school’s HIB coordinator.

“Our culture of caring is ingrained in everything we do,” she said. “Everything, everybody is connected in some way. We have a Video Game Club and a Dungeons and Dragons Club, and dozens of athletic and music programs. There’s something for everyone, but some of those clubs and teams are the safe environment a student needs when he or she has to talk to somebody if there’s a problem.

“I always invite anybody who thinks negatively about today’s kids to visit Southern. Our numbers of HIB incidents are low because of the people we have, and the connection they have to each other.”

Within the middle school, several initiatives such as the “Pause Before You Post” campaign, Mindset Day and Grit Day, among others, are in place to remind students they have to be careful about the messages they communicate, how they communicate them and what the ramifications can be. They also need the confidence and sense of empowerment necessary to effect change when necessary, Schoka said.

“Even before HIB reporting became what it is, we had a lot of these programs in place to help teach our students,” he said. “We didn’t have to come up with these programs to satisfy anything with regard to HIB stuff. This is just stuff we do and have done. We have a highly collaborative effort and everybody’s involved in it in some way. What we offer here directly correlates to why our HIB numbers are low and not really high.”

Development at Youngest Level

Inside the Stafford district, addressing anti-bullying, intimidation and harassment starts well before most students are old enough to use cell phones, mainly in the form of curriculum additives aimed at instilling positive virtues. One used at the Ronald L. Meinders Primary Learning Center and the Ocean Acres Elementary School is “Project Team,” which utilizes fictional characters with various foundational elements – problem solving and conflict resolution, leadership, positive change, helping others, anti-bullying and resiliency – to help students understand the benefit of positive behaviors when interacting with others. One used at the third- through sixth-grade levels is “Second Step,” which helps develop a climate of social-emotional safety within schools.

“My son is at PLC and one day he came home and said, ‘We learned about Ruby today and she’s resilient.’ He’s 5,” explained Stafford Intermediate guidance counselor Kristin Ducker. “So I asked, ‘What does resilient mean?’ And he said, ‘Oh, that means she keeps going.’ The character is in a wheelchair. And he’s not necessarily making the connection now about why that’s important, but he’ll understand it later. What we’re teaching are life skills. They may not understand it all now, but they will get it at some point, and that’s the key.”

Interestingly, on Ducker’s whiteboard in her office is a quote by Be the Nice Kid founder Bryan Skavnak: “Some kids are smarter than you. Some kids have cooler clothes than you. Some kids are better at sports than you. It doesn’t matter. You have your thing, too. Be the kid who can get along. Be the kid who is generous. Be the kid who is happy for others. Be the kid who does the right thing. Be the nice kid.”

That’s the mantra inside the Intermediate School – actually, within the entire district – and sixth-grader Sam Russell gets it.

“If you’re nice, it sets the example for other students,” she said. “People don’t want to be friends with somebody who’s treating others badly. It’s cool to be nice.”

Classmate Katie Renaud also gets it.

“Kindness is always wanting the best for somebody else,” said Katie, who once was rewarded by a teacher for stepping in when a boy in school cut in front of another girl in line and she instructed him to go to the end of the line. “You shouldn’t worry about if you’re better than others. Just be the best you, and try to help others be the best they can be. Judge somebody based on what they’re good at.”

Kira Kelly has a slightly different view on why being kind and not mean to others matters, but she, too, clearly understands the message.

“Bullying can lead to somebody doing some really bad things, like suicide, because they feel worthless,” she said. “Everybody should be treated equally. Nobody should be made to feel like they’re worthless.”

Bush said the “levels of empathy and tolerance in some of our students is amazing.” But she also knows there are reasons behind that, particularly the amount of effort spent by district administrators, teachers and support staff to continually remind students their conduct is important, especially when dealing with other students.

“We’re really proactive in this district with addressing these concepts,” she said. “And now, I see fifth-graders who learned a lot of them in Oxycocus when I was there, and it’s still with them. Even better, for most of them, their minds and hearts have grown around these concepts to levels that are incredible. It works!”

Of course, some positive reinforcement doesn’t hurt. The “UpStander “ program – which during the football season rewards selected students with New York Jets tickets (the Jets developed their own version of “UpStander” several years ago) – tags along with a similar program the Stafford district utilizes throughout the year. Its “Bus UpStander” program, through which district bus drivers reward students for being positive influences on the bus, a place which many HIB investigations have centered.

Additionally, the district utilizes “Zen Dens” – rooms in which students can have periods of relaxation and calmness – as well as plays and storytelling times by peer leadership groups reiterating the positive messages of inclusiveness and kindness.

“We wanted to instill this caring, kind culture even at our youngest levels,” Ytreboe said. “I believe it’s really starting to take shape now.”


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