Whether it's a drop in the bucket, or a call to "act now," Muskego schools are taking a closer look at bullying this month. October is anti-bullying awareness month, and programs in the schools aim to indentify, prevent and intervene whenever possible to handle the "bully problem."
At Mill Valley Elementary, a proactive approach called "Have You Filled a Bucket Today?" aims to reward positive behavior along with calling out negative actions by students and staff.
The "bucket" concept allows everyone at the school to "turn in" fellow students or staff when they're caught doing something good, not just when it's something they could get in trouble for.
"We're trying to teach kids to be bucket fillers by treating others with respect and kindness," said principal Robin Schrot. "If kids see someone doing good things, they put their name in the bucket and what they did, and the names are read over the loudspeaker. They get really excited when they hear their name being called."
Conversely, negative behaviors can cause a bucket to be emptied, however there's no public call-out on that person. This side of the equation helps staff identify problems, and allow them to intervene before the problem gets out of hand. However, it also helps them define for students what bullying isn't.
"Sometimes, we'll have a student complain that they were bullied on the bus or on the playground, and we first talk with them a little more about it to see exactly what happened. Often, it's a matter of someone having a bad day, and they didn't react as they should have and we try and help the students understand the difference."
Bullying is generally defined as targeted and repeated abuse against a student by another student or groups of students. On the elementary level, it's not as prevalent as older grades, but schools are trying to get the message out as early as possible to create more constructive habits.
Getting older kids to look at themselves
At Lake Denoon Middle School, the level of how students are bullied rises somewhat as most students have access to social media and texting, according to school resource officer Eric Nowicki.
"I can tell you that 90 percent of fights on school property initiate from a posting on Facebook or a text that occurred outside of school," Nowicki said. "Years ago, these disputes were handled in person, one-on-one, which makes a big difference and can keep it from escalating."
In addition, smart phones are ending up in younger kids' hands earlier, allowing them to access texting, Facebook and other social media sites during the school day, circumventing the school's efforts to block those sites on their computers.
"We have a great community here with good parents, and it's rare that things get that far, but these things can happen. Easily, 75 percent of the students here are on Facebook, which is supposed to be for people 14 and older," he added.
Starting this year in fifth grade, Nowicki is working on a program from Children's Hospital of Wisconsin (CHW) called "Act Now!", which is an interactive class online to engage students to learn about and prevent bullying.
The program is free to district students through a grant given to CHW, and serves to make all students empowered to prevent bullying.
"I don't know that bullying is necessarily any worse, but I think we are definitely becoming more sensitive. I'm concerned that there have been more suicides as a result of bullying, and how they are made to be more glamorous somehow as a permanent solution to a temporary problem," Nowicki said.
In other words, kids are also being taught how to handle bullying without becoming victims to it. The 'ACT' portion of the program is an acronym for Action, Care and Tell to help students combat bullying when they see it. The program describes forms of bullying common to their age group like friends as bullies (frenemies) and cyberbullying.
Students who sit down with Nowicki are asked to look at themselves, not at the object of their attacks.
"I always ask kids to ask themselves, 'why would I do that?' because too often they want to talk about the other guy. I want them look look at their own behavior because I want them to think before they act," Nowicki said.
How parents play a role
However, like Mill Valley, Lake Denoon's program also helps kids make the distinction between a disagreement and true bullying behavior.
"Kids are taught to realize that they can have an argument with a student or be yelled at, but that it doesn't always mean they've been bullied, because I think at times the term is overused," Nowicki explained.
He also stressed the importance of parental example in modeling positive behavior with others, as often bullying is identified only with school age children.
"I've seen adults engage in the behavior as well against teachers or referees at their kids' games, and it's important to realize that is where our kids learn these behaviors," he said.
Act Now! is a program for fifth grade only this year, but Nowicki said it will continue to roll out in the following years to include other grades as well. Students have responded to this and other efforts at schools enthusiastically, and Nowicki said it allows them to have a plan of action as well have the courage to confide in someone they trust to combat the problem.