By John Burton
RED BANK —The public school district is taking a new approach to the age-old problem of bullying, employing a student initiative to get kids more involved.
Since September, middle school administrators have allowed students to establish an anti-bullying squad.
The idea for the squad was brought to the administration by seventh grade student Elijah Gray. Elijah told of his own experiences with bullying, going back to the third grade.
“I was being teased about my clothes and my hair,” which his father would cut, Elijah explained about his experience.
“Students continued to target me throughout the years,” he acknowledged. “I was feeling a sense of hurt at being targeted.” And it was that experience that formed the basis for his idea of starting the squad. “I continued to see the bullying and I stepped up,” said Elijah, who is now 13.
According to Principal Maria Iozzi, about 45 students are participating in the squad.
“In terms of investigation nothing has changed,” regarding the administration’s role in combating bullying, Iozzi said. School officials contact the parents of students involved immediately, as well as the state Department of Education representatives, as required by department guidelines.
Elijah and his fellow squad members take an active role when they become aware of incidents occurring among the student body, and act as intermediaries pulling in the one doing the bullying and the victim
“A lot of times students don’t want to come out,” if they’ve been victimized, afraid they’ll be labeled a “snitch” or “tattletale,” Elijah explained.
And among the students who’ve been accused of bullying, oftentimes they say they didn’t even consider their behavior as inappropriate, seeing it as simply play.
“We really try to reach out to the students, telling them to think before you speak, before you act,” Iozzi said. And when there is that meeting between the two, “We ask the target, were you offended?” Iozzi said. “And it becomes quite clear.”
“You really try to moderate the situation,” is how Elijah explained the squad’s role in this.
The range of offensive behavior can range from some including incidents of cyber-bullying, the principal said, to what Elijah called “stinging’’—teasing, name calling, pulling pranks.
Elijah and his other squad members prepared for their role in the anti-bullying initiative with training that included watching a film and doing some role playing and even discussing the implications of coming forward or tattling, he said.
Students who need help with anger issues are referred to programs designed to address their problems. The program for girls is called GLO–acronym for Girls Leading Outward. A similar program designed for boys is called ExCel, which stands for Excellence, Community, Empowerment and Leadership, said Superintendent of Schools Laura Morana.
This year the state Department of Education enacted additional policies concerning harassment, intimidation and bullying, or HIB for short, requiring school officials to provide additional documentation of bullying incidents and of how officials’ respond. Schools will receive a report card from state education officials assessing each district’s effectiveness in addressing bullying incidents.
This year, Iozzi said, “We’ve definitely seen our cases decrease,” though she did not have statistics available immediately.
“What’s remarkable,” Morana observed, “is that Elijah and his peers are part of the solution.’
“I just love that the students are involved in this,” Morana said.