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Education: Workshops help make children bully-proof

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The language of the schoolyard is universal, from Brooklyn to Bakersfield, and Mike Dreiblatt speaks it fluently. The taunts, the retorts, the anger, the tears.

He spends 36 weeks a year on the road talking about bullying. This week he was in Georgetown County for workshops with students, parents and faculty. The former New York City teacher has become a national authority on bullying.

Speaking to a handful of parents at Waccamaw High, conjured up images that resonated across generations and cultures. The boy who blows on the hair of the girl who sits in front of him. The girls who say there’s no room at the cafeteria table for the new kid. The kid who watches bullying, but keeps quiet thinking, “better him than me.”

It’s all about power, Dreiblatt said. “Those who have more power are bullying those who have less power,” he said.

It’s the imbalance of power that separates bullying from what Dreiblatt calls “social combat.” Being mean or fighting aren’t necessarily bullying if the power isn’t out of balance.

People once claimed that bullying built character. Not true, Dreiblatt said. A study by the Secret Service after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado found three-fourths of shooters in such incidents were victims of bullies.

Columbine and the Internet have led to state and federal laws on bullying. Dreiblatt’s work focuses on prevention. “You can actually predict which students are going to get bullied,” he said.

Those are the ones who pose a challenge to the established order and the ones who are passive or submissive. They are the ones, Dreiblatt said, who adults are most drawn to.

Parents should ask themselves, “What does my kid bring to the table?” in dealing with other kids.

“The good news is, most kids aren’t bullies,” Dreiblatt said. “Most kids are bystanders.”

When bystanders step up, the average time of an incident drops from 28 to 7 seconds, he said.

Because bullying is about power, Dreiblatt said, parents can help their children to be assertive and tell a bully to stop.

Telling an adult is good for kids up to second grade, he said. After that, in the prime ages for bullying, “there’s a huge nerd factor.”

Telling an adult works best when combined with telling the bully to stop, he said.

Parents whose child is being bullied can help by making the child part of the solution. When parents take charge, it further reduces the child’s power. “Give the power back to your child,” Dreiblatt said. And follow up. Just because a child doesn’t talk about bullying doesn’t mean it has stopped, he said.

Gerri Bell, who attended because she works with youth at Greater Gordon AME Church, said she was bullied growing up in Harlem. “It’s worse today,” she said.

She agreed with Dreiblatt that it’s important to give children the opportunity to talk about their experiences.

Sarah Elliott, a school board member, said she found Dreiblatt’s advice to parents on dealing with schools (follow the chain of command, make a plan, follow up) to be on target and useful. She is a former teacher and administrator. She’s also a mother and grandmother who has seen bullying’s effects.

Elliott said it was disappointing that more parents didn’t attend. She hoped the district would make the videos of Dreiblatt’s presentations available to parent-teacher groups in the schools.

When screen goes blank, students put ideas about bullying on paper

A year of planning went into this week’s series of bullying workshops in Georgetown County schools, but when it came time for Waccamaw students to see the live video program, technology had other plans.

Only one class at Waccamaw Intermediate was able to get the program with Mike Dreiblatt, a national authority on bullying, broadcast from the district office, and it came in fits and starts. Teachers consulted in the hallways to make sure it wasn’t only their classroom that missed the Tuesday morning event. “I don’t think it’s us,” said Barbara Nesmith, the assistant principal.

“We need to pray,” said one student.

“We’re going to improvise,” said Tammy Williams, his fourth grade teacher.

Rather than be bullied by technology, she passed out paper and wrote four questions on the board, just to get you thinking while we’re waiting, she explained.

Under the light from the blank Activboard, pencils moved quietly across the paper. The only sound was Williams’ footsteps as she walked around to check on progress, and the occasional whir of the pencil sharpener.

By the time principal Tim Carnahan announced that “technical difficulties” would preempt the live presentation, the fourth-graders had completed their work and shown that they know a good bit about bullying.

And they had a grip on some of the techniques Dreiblatt recommends for dealing with bullies, which the class will see later on a video recording.

Hannan Mackey was quick to answer when Williams asked about cyber-bullying. “Text and e-mail,” she said.

Chris Clark had a ready definition of bullying. “It’s what a person does to get power over you,” he said. Power is a key element, Dreiblatt says. It’s the abuse of power that separates bullying from other forms of bad behavior

Wyatt Roff said some bullies are motivated by the need for attention.

An anti-bullying program began at the school last fall, prompted by a video created by Michele Diamond, a school psychologist at Waccamaw Intermediate and Waccamaw Middle. Intermediate school students also came up with posters to promote a bully-free school.

Williams’ students answered in unison when asked about how to deal with bullying: tell your parents, your teachers or an administrator.

“Don’t pay any attention to them,” Margaret Buxton said.

Dreiblatt would say that is a sound strategy, but risky. The key is to walk away with purpose, and no unnecessary movement, because the bully will usually try to draw a victim back.

Several students said they had first-hand experience with bullies.

One said a boy in first grade called her hair a “fur ball.” “He did it every single day,” she said and it reduced her to tears.

Another said a classmate, also in first grade, used to hit him. He then started hitting one of his friends.

“At my old school, kids used to bully me all the time,” said another student.

The class was only stumped by one question Williams posed. “What if you’re the bully?”

Dreiblatt would say that’s a question that needs to answered by parents. “You need to send out a clear message to your child,” he says.

It’s a message that parents heard at workshops around the district, who got to see Dreiblatt in person.

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