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The summer sun is fading and the new school year is just around the corner, bringing mixed feelings for school students preparing to return to school. Some may be excited to see their friends or show off new outfits or book bags, while others may not be ready for the barrage of homework and tests.
Neither is true for a 13-year-old Hanover student named Andrew, whose last name is being withheld for this article at the request of the family. He is terrified to return to the halls of his middle school.
“I’m going back to school and I’m scared because I’m going back to a school that has not changed,” Andrew said.
For roughly two years, Andrew never said a word to his parents or school leaders until, he said, some of his peers bullied him and he couldn’t take it anymore. Andrew said he decided to fight back after being “verbally assaulted,” so he hit one of the bullies and was punched, ultimately receiving a broken nose.
According to the district’s past Discipline, Crime and Violence reports, during the 2008 to 2009 school year, 63 bullying cases were reported out of 1,311 total incidents. The numbers dropped to 58 out of 1,522 total incidents the following year. Then in 2010 to 2011, there were 27 of a little more than 1,000 cases with 24 out of 1,009 in the 2011 to 2012 school year. Data from the most recent year is not available yet said Dr. Jamelle Wilson, the superintendent of schools.
Although the numbers show a decline in bullying cases in Hanover County Public Schools, bullying incidents such as Andrew’s exist. Efforts to curb bullying have taken place and since 2000 and 2005 when the school district started adopting prevention programs and policies. The bullying prevention program, Olweus was implemented in 2005, which addresses students’ behaviors and atmosphere by holding programs and meetings within classrooms and schools.
Wilson provided numbers at an Aug. 13 School Board meeting from past reports, noting that some bullying incidents do go unreported by students. Data from the past several school years, excluding last year, show the amount of reported bullying incidents have decreased.
Andrew addressed the issue of unreported incidents of bullying before the Board.
“We won’t tell our parents. We just pass it off and act like it’s going to go away and that people are going to learn and it’s going to just stop,” Andrew said. “It never does.”
Each year the school district sends reports to the Department of Education showing the number of bullying incidents out of the total number of incidents that occur within the schools.
“We take every instance of bullying very seriously,” said Chairman Robert L. Hundley Jr., Chickahominy District representative.
Though data shows the number of incidents are decreasing, “every incident is one too many,” Hundley said, referring to the data Wilson presented at the meeting.
To Andrew, going to the students is an important way to address bullying.
“If you really want to stop bullying, one of the ways is you’re gonna need to come to the students because we don’t like to tell people. It’s embarrassing and we like to keep it to ourselves,” he said at the meeting.
Hundley said that schools need to “encourage students to report those incidents when they’ve been bullied,” adding “that’s always been a part of our education system.”
Recently, a focus group centered on bullying prevention and character behavior education was formed and led by Daryl Chesley, assistant superintendent of instructional leadership. The group, made up of teachers, principals, community members and students, looked at all of the character education programs and policies in the schools.
The group formed a list of recommendations from their findings, discussion and research. One recommendation would add bullying, including cyber bullying, and harassment to the actions prohibited in the rules.
Chesley said there would be a form of checks and balances to make sure administrators are enforcing the code of conduct regarding bullying and discipline.
Also on the list was the adoption of the Virginia General Assembly’s definition of “bullying,” or House Bill 1871, into the Student Code of Conduct as of July 1.
The state legislature defines bullying as “any aggressive and unwanted behavior that is intended to harm, intimidate, or humiliate the victim; involves a real or perceived power imbalance between the aggressor or aggressor and victim; and is repeated over time or causes severe emotional trauma.” The Virginia law excludes “ordinary teasing, horseplay and argument or conflict between students.”
One thing the focus group’s efforts did not include, other than the student participants, was student input. Chesley said some student input is received within individual schools.
At one school that was not identified, students were given phones to send their concerns or worries of bullying incidents through text messages.
The group itself did not receive any student reports of bullying. Its members looked at surveys from parents that showed parents’ opinions on whether Hanover schools are safe for their children.
Since the 2008 to 2009 school year, the surveys show that no less than 90 percent of the participating parents believe their children are safe at school. Every year since 2008, less than 8 percent of parents said they thought the schools were a dangerous environment for their children when surveyed.
Another goal of the focus group was to make the policies and programs consistent across the schools, Chesley said.
“There is no one silver bullet,” Chesley said, referring to the fact that all schools may have one or more character behavior education programs.
Often the programs vary from school to school and each principal will have the responsibility to figure out which programs fit their students and school the best.
Each school has their own type of character education or bullying prevention program and some have more than one such as the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program and KOM Mentor Program at Lee-Davis High School. However, Olweus is a program that many schools are a part of, including Chickahominy and Liberty Middle schools.
But Andrew said that he and some of his peers were unaware of the Olweus program at his school.
Currently the school district is looking at incidents occurring in Hanover schools in case there are any outstanding patterns, Chesley said.
Some community members have brought the topic of bullying before the school board. Dr. Donna Boone, Andrew’s grandmother, spoke on four occasions about her grandson’s bullying incident.
“To me [bullying is] a serious problem,” Boone said.
Boone also proposed a possible character education program, called School Social Civility, in place of Olweus that she offered to implement and lead. She is a licensed therapist and recently retired from “implementing evidence-based practices” with agencies through private contracts.
Boone is unsatisfied with the Olweus program at her grandson’s school.
“Find a program that has teeth in it,” she said as a suggestion to the schools. Boone added that schools do not have to choose her program, but she would like to see a program address bullying head-on.
After Andrew gave his testimony at the board meeting, Boone said both her grandson’s principal and the superintendent reached out to their family.
“I am finally hopeful that something will be done,” she said.