Eight school and law enforcement officials agreed Thursday that a solution to bullying is education, but the trick is, who’s going to do it.
School officials including Superintendent of Schools Kathryn LeRoy, Associate Superintendent Nancy Woolcott, Jesse Keene Elementary School Principal Joe Griffin and Lake Gibson High School Principal Tami Dawson all explained at a panel to discuss bullying organized by The Lakeland Ledger and Polk Vision, that the school district has launched an intensive campaign to stop bullying, but without parental support or additional resources, the schools can only go so far.
“We have to go from school to home prevention,” said LeRoy. “and we need parents’ help to change behavior in those who are bullied and the bullies as well.”
LeRoy told the 150 who attended the forum at the Sheriff’s Department Auditorium entitled “Bullying: A Search for a Solution” that the school district was hiring four new employees whose sole task would be to deal with bullying issues.
“This will free our principals from having to deal with this issue on a daily basis and let them get back to running their schools.”
Griffin added he and Dawson often spent several days investigating bullying complaints at their respective schools. Woolcott, who currently reviews all bullying cases in the district, said some high schools had as many as a dozen bullying complaints daily to investigate.
“We need to do what we have to do, to get our educators back to their jobs and this will help us do that,” she said.
LeRoy said the district campaign included putting up “bullying boxes” in schools so students can anonymously report what they perceive as bullying incidents; banners were hung in every school urging students to report bullying; established a link on the district’s website to report bullying; held anti-bullying days at high schools and spent hours the first week of elementary school explaining to younger students what bullying was and to whom it was to be reported.
Woolcott, who oversees learning support, also said that teachers and administrators also underwent additional training on how to handle bullying complaints.
Woolcott said all school personnel learned that the process implemented by the school board was outlined in four steps: 1) bullying was reported, 2) investigation of the complaint, 3) action plans were developed for both the victim and the bully and 4) prevention education was heightened.
She added one complaint could take 10 days to investigate if all four steps were followed.
“We want to stop bullying before it becomes a police matter,” she said.
Police panelists including Winter Haven Police Chief Gary Hester, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and Lakeland Police Department School Resource Officers’ Supervisor Sgt. Richard Rose added that pending legislation to criminalize bullying wasn’t an answer.
“If it comes to us, all we do is wind up creating a criminal when we just need to help these kids see that what they are doing is wrong and there are ways to handle it besides putting kids in jail,” said Hester.
Judd, who also spoke for the Florida Sheriff’s Association, said, “We need to give the tools to our schools so they can be proactive,” the sheriff said. “The schools have the infrastructure to deal with these things and they care about these children.”
Dr. Berney Wilkinson, a clinical psychologist on the panel, said that “once, kids were safe at home. That’s no longer the case. They are targets 24/7. With Facebook, Kick, Instagram and other cybermedia,
kids can be targets of global bullying. It’s up to them to step up. Parents need to get in sync with their kids. They need to look for changes in their child and if they notice something, they need to talk with their kids about it. If they can’t, they need to find someone who can — a counselor, a minister, a coach, somebody. And, if need be, get their kids some counseling.
“If that doesn’t work, they need to take away the instruments. Take away their phone, change the number, take their iPad or computer, whatever device their kids are using. That will help stop it. If a kid is sending bullying messages, they should shut the kid down. Take away their device and get the kids some help.”
“Children don’t need their parents as friends,” he added, “They need them to parent them.”
“We need to get up every morning and do what Winston Churchill said: Action this day,” said Rose. “If you think your child is a bully, talk with them and stress empathy with them. If they look at things differently, they will change.”
“We have to educate our children,” Dawson said. “That’s the key.”
Wilkinson also said that children needed to start school socialized.
“We need to teach them to share, to be tolerant, to accept differences and help them with their self-esteem. If we don’t start them early, they will be either a victim or a bully.”
He added children emulate what they see at home.
“If they see aggression at home, see intolerance at home and see violence at home, they think that’s what it’s supposed to be like. We need to counter that somehow.”
Woolcott said that elementary students are taught to tell their parents of “meanness, if they see or experience it. And, if someone is mean to them, we tell them to say Stop! and report it to a teacher.”
Griffin added that parents need to “re institute non-negotiables” with children. “We have to get back to basics and set rules for them and stick to them and make sure there are consequences for not sticking to them.”