Seneca East is working to break the cycle of bullying

The 2016 Seneca County Health Assessment revealed that 44 percent of area youth reported being bullied in the past year. Youth violence/bullying was identified as one of the priorities to be addressed by the Seneca County Health Alliance’s Community Health Improvement Plan. For that reason, a Seneca County Bullying Prevention Coalition was formed to research bullying in Seneca County and determine effective means of prevention. This coalition is made up of concerned citizens, community leaders and local organizations involved with youth. The coalition is gathering information from local entities to help the community become more aware of the practices that are currently in place to prevent bullying behaviors.

The following is submitted by Don Vogt, Seneca East principal, with contributions from Heather Schalk, Linda Bloomberg and Heather Stockmaster, middle and high school guidance counselors.

Taylor Swift has had a prominent musical presence in our house for some time now. Having a daughter who just entered college last year, we often note that her room still has remnants of having been inundated with TSwift posters, calendars, vinyls and concert memorabilia.

Swift has written on all sorts of subjects, most of which are about her own life experiences, and she even addresses bullying, albeit adult bullying, in a song called “Mean”:

You, with your words like knives

And swords and weapons that you use against me

You have knocked me off my feet again

Got me feeling like a nothing

It’s the word “nothing” that got me thinking about the darkness many kids must feel when they are the recipient of verbal “knives,” “swords” and “weapons.” According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, students who are the target of bullies experience a whole host of negative effects that include poor school adjustment, sleep difficulties, anxiety, anger and depression. These students, too, are at a higher risk of developing mental and behavioral issues as well, and that includes a higher correlation and rate of suicidal thoughts than their peers.

Swift’s lyrics continue …

You have pointed out my flaws again

As if I don’t already see them

I walk with my head down

Trying to block you out ’cause I’ll never impress you

I just wanna feel OK again.

“I just want to feel OK again” — spoken by an adult who still struggles to get over the harmful words that cut right at her flaws — shows that bullying doesn’t just have short-term effects. In an article published by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D., called “The Long-term Effects of Bullying,” he cites such adult maladies linked to bullying as lessened opportunities in a selected occupation in addition to the possibility of having constant feelings of anger, bitterness and a desire for revenge. Bullied students who grow into adults also may have a difficult time trusting others, may have a fear of new social situations, have self-esteem problems and have an increased tendency to be a loner — all problems that don’t set a track for a positive adult experience or provide for the means in developing healthy adult relationships.

“Mean” also theorizes in its lyrics: “I bet you got pushed around/Somebody made you cold,” which highlights the other side of the issue and sheds light on bullies and their motivations themselves. Unfortunately, as research shows, if these motivations are not corrected, they can lead to a life that may not end up all that well-adjusted. Bullying is like the old 45s that have songs on both sides. There are the bullies who act out and throw the “knives” along with the ones who get hurt by them — both of whom suffer in the end. StompOutBullying.org tells us the bullies themselves struggle with their own issues. Typically, they say, bullies are a result of many factors that could include being a neglected child, a kid who learned the behaviors from parents who also are bullies or are children who lack empathy and hold a “contempt for the weak.” They often feed off of a power to manipulate, control and dominate someone else, oftentimes based on their own hidden low self-esteem, their own inadequacies and what they may consider their own insufficient environment.

There is good news, though. According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, more than half (57 percent) of the bullying situations in which kids find themselves are stopped when a peer steps in and supports another student who is the target of a bully. In addition, “school-based bullying prevention programs decrease bullying by up to 25 percent” overall, and that number increases when teachers give those who are bullied assistance by lending an ear, checking in with students after a consultation, and when teachers offer positive advice. To make those figures work for kids at Seneca East, we offer several different programs from kindergarten through a student’s senior year to educate and assist our students on both sides of the bullying issue.

First, various classroom lessons on bullying and getting along with others are offered each year in our primary grades. The fifth-grade students, as an example, will be having a book study on a work from R.J. Palacio called “Wonder,” which promotes the message of kindness as a theme for the school year. For third- through fifth-graders, we will be sponsoring a “Stick Together” program developed by Duck Tape Corp. in an effort to provide a fun and different way for students to explore the important social-emotional learning concepts of kindness and sticking together to combat bullying and negative behaviors. Students will be involved in large-group discussions, video lessons and hands-on activities combined with a written exercise. The lesson culminates with students pledging to “stick together” as they write their individual names on pieces of Duck Tape and place them on a provided banner that will be displayed in the elementary hallway.

For middle school students, we offer an anti-bullying leadership group where student volunteers and leaders participate in bringing the anti-bullying message to their peers. Activities include teacher/student interviews, acrostic poems, student-led ideas of creating a bully-free zone and posting healthy ways of dealing with being bullied. In addition, we have invited certified John Maxwell team speaker Steve Mohr, who will lead our eighth-graders through a youth leadership curriculum designed to give today’s young people practical tools and ideas to help them navigate life. Mohr’s topics include those dealing in the development of strong personal character.

For the entire district, we will be hosting a Kindness Challenge where students in K-12 can submit poster designs, and winners will not only have their artwork posted in the halls on display, but the design will also be the center of a T-shirt emblem for staff and students to purchase in order to show support for the cause.

Of course, overriding all of this is our PAWS (And Think) PBIS program where students are encouraged and rewarded for being Positive, showing a good Attitude, making Wise choices, and Showing respect. This comes in addition to the counseling services we provide when a bullying event does happen to take place.

The song “Mean” sums up by saying, “But the cycle ends right now/Cause you can’t lead me down that road,” and

Someday I’ll be living in a big old city

And all you’re ever gonna be is mean

Someday I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me

And all you’re ever gonna be is mean …

It’s our hope that through education and proper guidance through programming and helping kids steer their way through the trials and tribulations of life, that they don’t have to wish they were somewhere else or be grown up but that they can live in peace in the here and now all the while learning how to treat their peers and others with kindness and respect. This is the way we break the cycle.

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