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Grand Haven district students, staff take a stand against bullying

Kyle Moroney • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:08 AM

“We know it’s not a problem that can be solved overnight,” said Emma Baty, a junior at Grand Haven High School. “But we’re going to try our hardest to make sure every kid comes to school every day and feels safe.”

Last year, the school district established the Capturing Kids’ Hearts program that helps to build positive, productive and trusting relationships among staff and students. In addition, GHAPS staff underwent three days of anti-bullying training prior to the start of this school year, and there are anti-bullying committees at the district level and at each of the district’s schools.

Recently, GHHS students generated their own awareness program, called “Bucs Above Bullying: Don’t be a Zebra,” to stomp out bullying in their school.

Baty, 17, explained that students came up with the “zebra” theme after learning that, when a predator attacks a zebra, the other zebras nearby don’t help.

Instead, the herd just stands back and watches the attack, according to Baty.

“We don’t want to be bystanders to bullying,” said Baty, the managing editor at the school’s newspaper, the Bucs’ Blade. “... That is just as big or bigger than bullying.”

The campaign is focused on students stepping in, getting involved and assisting other classmates who are being bullied. Students presented a skit during an all-school pep assembly, re-affirming their stance that bullying is unacceptable behavior.

“We don’t want anyone to feel scared,” Baty said. “We want them to feel accepted.”

Earlier this week, Baty and GHHS senior Jared Bollaert, president of the school’s Student Senate, discussed the anti-bullying efforts at the Grand Haven school board meeting.

“We want to change the culture of our school, and have kids be happy to go to school and not dread it,” Bollaert said during the meeting.

He and others plan to develop instruction and skits to take to the middle school students to help them understand that bullying is inappropriate behavior.

Cyberbullying and sarcasm

Last spring, GHHS and Central High School students were surveyed about bullying in their schools. Results indicated that students felt bullying was an issue, but more so at the middle school level, according to GHHS Principal Tracy Wilson. The surveys also revealed that student intervention would be more effective in curbing bullying than an adult stepping in to help.

“The biggest issue we see is with the technology,” Wilson said. “Even though it’s not going on during school, it’s coming into school because of what happened on Facebook last night.”

Cyberbullying is the biggest reoccurring issue the nine Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department school liaison officers throughout the county see in schools, according to Sgt. Valerie Weiss, the school resource supervisor.

“It’s such a big thing right now — Facebook makes it that much worse,” Weiss said. “... We just have more avenues to (bully) now that we didn’t have 10, 15 years ago.”

Already this year, students have been charged with harassment in connection to bullying, according to Weiss.

“Once we sit down with them and they know what the consequences are, normally the (behavior) stops,” she said. “It starts out young — and it’s really scary how young kids are learning bullying behavior.”

The most common types of bullying that Grand Haven staff at the high school and middle schools are seeing are “subtle” — such as name-calling, sarcasm and excluding others, they said.

“A lot of times, we’re dealing with the fallout of out-of-school behaviors,” said Bob Coyne, assistant principal at White Pines Middle School.

Sarcasm is a prevalent form of bullying at the school, despite several class-written social contracts that hang in each classroom, ranking the behavior as offensive, according to Coyne. White Pines staff members do not typically see severe cases of verbal bullying; but more often kids are not living up to their social contracts, or are having a bad day and taking out their frustration on the people around them.

“In general, middle school kids are very impulsive,” Coyne said. “They’ll say something and think they’re being funny, when it comes off to somebody else as hurtful. We tell them that we take that seriously, and these are the consequences and this is the effect it has.

“The emotional part is something that is more difficult to see — but I think it’s equally, if not more, harmful,” he added.

Promoting positive behavior

Coyne explained that students generally experience a lot of change when they get to middle school, and that staff members teach and re-emphasize what is appropriate behavior in various parts of the building and reward them for that behavior. The school offers several programs that provide opportunities for students to exude anti-bullying techniques and help make sure that everyone is included, Coyne said.

“What we focus on is positive behavior and help kids extinguish negative behavior,” he said.

Teachers in the district’s elementary schools are also reviewing similar programs with their students — even as young as kindergartners.

“On behalf of all the elementary schools, every school has a positive behavior initiative in place right now,” said Valerie Livingston, principal at Mary A. White Elementary School. “We word everything in a positive way and we teach positive behavior so they know what it means.”

Livingston said teachers and staff clearly explain what bullying means to students so they can identify the behavior.

“It may be a look, it may be a gesture — anything that is intended to hurt someone’s feelings,” she said.

Ignoring bullying issues will only exasperate the problem, school officials have said.

“A bully becomes a bully because it gives them power,” Livingston said. “If we ignore it, that gives them power. ... When one child steps up to a bully — no matter the age — it shuts the bully down.”

Abolishing toilet-papering

As GHHS students look forward to Homecoming Week that begins Monday, school and student leaders are asking their peers to refrain from “toilet-papering” residential neighborhoods.

“We want homecoming to be about homecoming again and not about t-p’ing,” Baty said.

Wilson explained that toilet-papering a residential property was thought to be a “right of passage” for the upperclassmen, and freshmen were considered “cool” if they were chosen to participate.

“Now, it’s turned more vindictive and nasty,” she said, explaining that houses have been egged and paintballed. “All kinds of things that, and in my opinion, is out of control. And that’s not good, clean fun.”

A recent edition of the Bucs’ Blade included stories from its editorial staff and the Student Senate that encouraged the end of “TP week.” Letters about the issue were recently sent to GHHS parents to support the effort.

“Let’s focus on the positive things of Homecoming Week,” Wilson said.

GHHS Homecoming Week events include a movie night at the football stadium on Monday, a powderpuff game on Wednesday, the Homecoming football game on Friday and dance on Saturday.

“Our hope is that we eliminate all forms of bullying, and provide an environment where students feel comfortable and safe when they come to school,” Wilson said. “I’m proud of my students and staff, and that kids are taking a stand against something.”

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