This month, West County middle and high school students and staff will be learning about bullying prevention as part of a district-wide anti-bullying campaign.
This year the district is using theater to expand the conversation about bullying. Throughout October and November, the district is bringing the play “OutSpoken” put on by the YouthAware Education Theater program, into middle and high schools.
The play, which began touring in 2005, deals with bullying in a variety of different scenarios including body image, identity, and political and religious differences.
Sara Staley, the program director for YouthAware and director of “OutSpoken,” said she’s noticed an increase in dialogue about bullying in the last few years.
“These are issues kids have been dealing with for decades,” she said. “Because of the severity of this issue schools realized they needed to started to educating about this.”
During the 2006–2007 school year, more than eight million U.S. students ages 12-18 reported they were bullied at school according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Olinda Elementary School Principal Larne Olanrewaju said she has been fielding more calls from concerned parents wondering if their child is being bullied.
“It is a huge word around school,” she said.
Olanrewaju said often she has to determine whether it’s a conflict or a case of bullying happening between students.
“Kids have conflicts, kids have fights,” she said. “We have to teach people that bullying is an imbalance of power.”
To help educate students and staff, Olanrewaju brought Kevin Weinert, or The Man With Two Hands, into the school to give an anti-bullying seminar.
Weinert, who spent many years as a youth pastor, said about 10 years ago he was looking for a new line of work when the principal at Brentwood Elementary, where his daughters attended, approached him and asked if he could create a character education program.
From there, after doing a lot of research, Weinert said he began developing an anti-bullying presentation for both students and staff focused on educating people on imbalances of power.
Weinert said he approaches the topic from different angles when speaking with boys and girls.
Boys, he said, are often more prone to bullying in the fall and often he tells an entertaining story to get them to think about strategies to deal with conflicts.
Girls, he said, require a more serious heart-to-heart and Weinert said he begins by telling a true story about a friend of his who was just a few hours away from committing suicide because of her experiences being bullied.
After sharing that story he will often ask teachers or students to share their experiences.
“It shows them that those things we say, those things we do to torment people, cause lasting damage,” he said.
Weinert said there are a lot of existing programs aimed at middle and high school audiences, which is important, he said, because that’s when the majority of bullying happens.
His presentation is aimed at elementary school students, to give them tools to combat an imbalance of power that occurs when bullying happens, but none of that empowerment can happen if teachers, staff and students are unclear about what bullying is, which is why he also gives a staff presentation.
“To deal with it in the right way you have to know what you’re dealing with,” he said.
Weinert said he’s found that schools often don’t have a lot of extra money to bring in programs to educate about topics such as bullying, but with recent high profile stories in the news — such as the case of Canadian teen Amanda Todd who committed suicide after being cyber bullied — there is a desire to learn more.
About 940,000 students reported they were cyber-bullied, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
This year the Richmond Police Department has partnered with the district to bring awareness about cyber bullying.
Principals were introduced to the signs of cyber bulling and what to do about it in an informal talk given before school began, according to Detective Nicole Abetkov, a member of the Youth Crimes Unit.
Richmond Police also passed out posters to the schools in the district.
Abetkov said there haven’t been many recent cases of bullying in which the police have gotten involved, but there has been a rise in conflicts that begin over the Internet on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.
“In the last two years it’s become a major issue in the schools,” she said. “We even have females starting fights over stuff being said on Facebook.”
Furthermore, because there aren’t any laws in California specific to bullying or Abetkov said the schools often handle reports of bullying and police only get involved if the action includes some type of criminal act, such as vandalism or a physical altercation.