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Students hear bullying message

Mike Hall took a deep breath, then bounded to the stage in front of a cheering group of eighth-graders.

“What’s up?” he called, fist-bumping a boy in the auditorium of Rodney Thompson Middle School.

For an hour, Hall talked to the students of the Stafford County school, telling them real-life tales that seem ripped from the pages of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”

He talked about his first middle school dance, his rejection by the girl of his tween dreams and his loneliness as a military brat who moved in and out of school districts. And then he talked about how he decided to change his life into something better.

Hall’s motivational speech—given at different times to each grade level—kicked off Rodney Thompson’s new anti-bullying program. But he only used the B-word a handful of times.

He said that he wanted to do more than teach kids how to recognize a bully; he wanted to make them invulnerable to bullies. And to prevent them from becoming bullies.

“Bullying is an external symptom of something bigger, like sneezing or coughing is a sign that you have a cold,” Hall said. “I want to paint a picture of who they can be, instead of who we don’t want them to be.”

But the word “bully” hasn’t been stripped from the halls of the school, where posters urge kids to speak up if they see examples of the behavior.

Bullying prevention has become an education buzzword.

“We use it more often than we should,” said Karl Memmer, a guidance counselor at Rodney Thompson.

Last year, he and a group of other school employees formed a committee to address bullying because the stakes are so high.

An international study found that both bullies and their victims were more likely to face psychological and medical problems, even into adulthood.

And nationwide, some teens and tweens were reported to have killed themselves after repeated bullying. Last week, a 12-year-old Florida girl committed suicide, and the sheriff there said the girl had been harassed through social media sites.

“Now, it’s even more important for us to work closely with parents and the community to help them understand what bullying is and to help us work with students to send positive messages on how to deal with bullying,” said Andy Grider, the principal at Rodney Thompson.

That school just became the last of Stafford’s eight middle schools to implement the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. Staff at several Stafford elementary schools also have been trained in the program.

Schools in Spotsylvania, Orange and Caroline counties and the city of Fredericksburg also use Olweus.

The program is one of 47 prevention programs to be named “promising” by Blueprints, a Colorado University-based project, which reviews prevention programs.

Some prevention programs can backfire, said Blueprints director Sharon Mihalic.

“There’s always a chance that a program can be harmful to kids,” she said. “So we want to put it through the same the rigorous tests you would give a medication.”

And anti-bullying programs are popping up all over the place, she said.

“Bullying has gotten to be a very huge problem in schools, so a lot of schools are looking to implement programs,” Mihalic said.

The Olweus program is a popular choice because there is clear evidence that it reduces bullying—and it doesn’t cost a lot of money to start.

Rodney Thompson employees chose the program because if offered a concrete protocol for dealing with a problem that can often seem amorphous, Memmer said.

“We want the students here to have a greater sense of security and confidence in standing up to bullying,” he said.

Amy Umble: 540/735-1973



Times have changed. And so has bullying. The stereotypical big kid stealing lunch money has been replaced by a tween girl texting insults and threats.

And that’s why prevention is so key, said Karl Memmer, guidance counselor at Rodney Thompson Middle School. Kids no longer have a cooling-down period to escape bullies; they can be bombarded 24 hours a day.

So parents need to keep up to date on the latest technology; some bully victims’ parents shut down Facebook and MySpace accounts, but their children still were bullied through newer apps the parents didn’t know about.

Memmer also recommends keeping computers in open locations, monitoring Internet use, smartphone use and keeping track of the child’s passwords for every piece of technology and social media site.

But the biggest key to helping children handle bullying remains low-tech: Talking.

“Middle school is a socially turbulent time, and we all have busy, busy lives, but setting aside time for conversation is important,” Memmer said, “Really opening the door, inviting them in, asking ‘Are there any issues going on? How’s it going with friends?’”

—Amy Umble