Western Pennsylvania schools offer children tools to deal with bullying

January 29, 2018 GMT

A friend received angry social media posts. Another expressed feelings of sadness. A classmate threatened to hurt herself.

These scenarios were displayed on the walls of Burrell School District’s Charles A. Huston Middle School during a bullying prevention and awareness program.

Sixth- through eighth-graders were asked to respond to the prompts and offer solutions: Talk to a teacher, tell a parent, share the social media post with a coach.

“I think in the long run, our building as a whole sees the benefits of doing this, even if it does take away from the class time,” said Kristy McCurdi, a guidance counselor at Huston. She explained that when students aren’t stressed out by bullying, they’re able to stay in class, build relationships with classmates and adults and develop skills needed to cope with bullying or future adverse circumstances.

Huston is one of many Western Pennsylvania schools looking for ways to stop bullying and foster safe and supportive environments.

Conversations about school safety made headlines again following shootings at schools in Texas and Kentucky in the past week. Two 12-year-olds in Florida were charged with cyberstalking related to the suicide of a middle school student.

Closer to home, police arrested a 14-year-old boy Friday and seized weapons from his bedroom after he threatened to kill four classmates at Uniontown Area High School. Classes are canceled today in the Laurel Highlands School District after a similar threat there.

On Jan. 22, Alex Hribal was sentenced to up to 60 years in prison for carrying out a knife attack at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville in 2014. Hribal, now 20, asserted bullying and issues with mental health played a role in motivating the attack, but a judge determined those factors did not rise to a level that would influence a guilty verdict.

Educators say they work on these issues with staff and students year round.

“I think it’s just a matter of kids having a mutual respect for each other,” said Brian Ferra, principal at Huston Middle School, adding that students need to learn to accept people who are different from them so they can function in the real world.

Bullying can get complicated.

Why a child bullies varies from case to case: Some might want to display dominance, while others are reinforcing social status, said Catherine Bradshaw, an education professor at the University of Virginia who studies bullying, trauma and violence among young people. Some children who bully might have trouble engaging with others or in expressing their feelings.

Just as the reasons for why students bully vary, so do the ways in which victims of bullying react, McCurdi said. In some cases, it could lead to mental health problems such as anxiety or depression, lashing out or substance abuse. Some children might be able to cope on their own and move on easily.

But McCurdi and other experts pointed out just because a child is bullied or engages in bullying does not automatically mean that they are likely to become violent.

“Bullying should not be looked upon as a red flag (that) now a student is going to become violent,” said Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University.

The few students who do become violent are likely to have experienced a confluence of events — hidden problems involving abuse, instability at home, problems with drugs or alcohol or other emotional challenges — that typically do not occur, Englander said.

Even if an individual does have a severe mental illness, research shows that they are more likely to harm themselves than others, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. People with severe mental illness could become violent during an episode of psychosis; however, studies suggest that when treated, that isn’t likely. In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

When it comes to addressing bullying in schools, the focus often is on cultivating an environment where students feel safe and well supported, according to Bryan Joffe, project director for education and youth development at the Alexandria, Va.-based School Superintendents Association, a professional organization that supports school administrators. It provides resources to school leaders looking to craft policies around bullying prevention in their schools. Administrators across the country seeking to improve what they call “school climate” have a common goal: To make sure that students are surrounded by a network of supportive adults and friends who are looking out for them and who can recognize when a student might be facing bullying or mental health problems such as depression or anxiety, Joffe said.

“This is not just a student issue; this is for adults as well,” Joffee said. “Adults make up a big part of the school culture.”

Schools in Westmoreland County seem to match those national trends.

“I think schools do realize the need to change their school cultures, to improve that school climate, to make schools feel safer,” said Timothy Hammill, curriculum services director at the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit, which works as an intermediary between the state Department of Education and local schools.

“We know that kids do not perform well if they’re under some sort of mental stress,” Hammill said.

And because that stress could have an impact on the learning process, it becomes the responsibility of teachers and administrators to fix that problem and make sure kids are able to learn at school, he said.

Several area districts — including Burrell, Hempfield Area and Franklin Regional — implement the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program to monitor school climate and set policies. The program starts with a district-wide survey that collects data about school climate, including bullying.

“They look at things like specific areas where kids feel they’re bullied, or what they’re bullied about,” said Jeffrey Coover, director of student services at Hempfield Area. Figuring out why students are being bullied and locating when and where in the school it is happening helps principals and teachers figure out how they can intervene, he said.

At Hempfield, older students are eventually looped into the results of the data and given the chance to offer input about how those issues can be addressed. They also learn about strategies for intervening if they see bullying happening.

The goal is to teach students not only how to stop bullying when they see it but also, hopefully, to keep it from happening at all.

“In terms of being effective, I think you really need to focus on that prevention piece,” Coover said.

Pennsylvania requires schools to adopt policies related to bullying and address it in their code of conduct. Those policies must be reviewed every three years and should be publicly posted on district websites and in school buildings. Bullying incidents are reported to the state annually in district Safe Schools reports.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@tribweb.com, 724-850-2867 or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.