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Anti-bullying effort begins in Mitchell

L.B. Williams Principal Becky Roth talks to parents and students at an anti-bullying event in October at L.B. Williams Elementary School in Mitchell. (Sean Ryan/Republic)

A newly implemented anti-bullying program in two Mitchell schools is getting rave reviews from district officials.

This year, the Mitchell School District kicked off the Olweus bullying prevention program, a research-based effort that is designed to enhance peer relations, make schools safer and allow for students to learn and develop in a better environment. The program is best suited for elementary, middle-school and junior-high students.

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Pioneering the program in Mitchell are Gertie Belle Rogers and L.B. Williams elementary schools, which have been working with it since early September. The program will be expanded to other Mitchell schools over the next two years.

“It’s very critical for the kids to understand, know and recognize that when they do say certain things and how they go about certain things, that is a form of bullying,” L.B. Williams Principal Becky Roth said, “and I don’t think some kids understand that.”

In March 2012, South Dakota Senate Bill 130 was signed into law, requiring the school board of each school district to adopt a policy prohibiting bullying. The bill, which gets into deeper specifics, defines bullying as a pattern of repeated conduct that causes physical hurt or psychological distress on one or more students.

Mitchell chose Olweus based on its proven worldwide results, Mitchell Superintendent Joe Graves Graves said.

“We’ve been studying it for a couple years,” he said. “We wanted to make sure to find the one that had produced the best results nationally with some research, rather than just have a program selected for no good reason.”

Evaluations of 40,000 Olweus participants showed reductions of student reports of bullying by 20 to 70 percent. It has received numerous awards from organizations dedicated to addressing bullying and violence among children.

“Olweus is evidence-based and is proven to work in school districts around the world,” said Karen Allen, Mitchell School District’s chemical dependency prevention counselor and leader in implementing the anti-bullying program in the district. “I think it’s been really, really positive. There’s been really good support, and that’s why it will be a great program.”

Allen underwent training with Olweus that spanned two years to educate teachers about the program. Her main training was in Syracuse, N.Y., for a total of seven days.

Last spring, teachers from both Gertie Belle Rogers and L.B. Williams applied to be a part of each school’s 10-member core team. Teachers who were selected to the core team, at least one from each grade level, trained with Allen on Olweus for two days. Those core leaders then helped train staff from the schools.

The students had a kickoff event in September and parents also got involved with events at the schools.

“The kickoffs were telling the parents this was an initiative we feel strongly about,” Allen said. “We need to make sure the parents are on board, because students, if they see a problem, they need to report it to an adult at school and at home.”

Students are having classroom discussions weekly to talk about bullying prevention. Olweus’ four main rules are: we will not bully others; we will try and help students who are bullied; we will try to include students who are left out; and if we know someone who is being bullied, we will tell an adult at home and at school. Meanwhile, core leaders are having monthly discussion groups about how the program is going.

Roth said implementing the program is a good way to stay proactive, rather than being reactive if a problem arises.

“I think it’s all ages to a certain degree and even adults at some point in time have been bullied,” Roth said. “I think it’s everywhere.

“What I think is, starting the elementary schools, we’re really trying to be more proactive and laying a foundation for the years to come. Hopefully it will just keep moving forward.”

Gertie Belle Rogers Principal Vicki Harmdierks is already seeing results.

“I think this is going great,” Harmdierks said. “It really has helped.”