Anti-bullying program has successes, challenges 7 years later

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Seven years after an anti-bullying curriculum was shared with schools statewide, educators and school officials say they’re seeing both successes and challenges.

The curriculum was developed in part after Weston High School Principal John Klang was killed by a student who said he was teased at school. Following his death, his wife Sue got involved with the Department of Public Instruction to expand the anti-bullying curriculum that had started for elementary-aged students.

In 2009 DPI officials rolled out that curriculum for elementary and middle school students, and months later, in 2010, the Legislature passed a law to require districts to implement a policy to define bullying and ban it in schools.

Since then, DPI has expanded that program to the high school level.

Verona’s Badger Ridge Middle School piloted the program, and teacher Diana Lehnherr has been involved since the beginning.

Tuesday her classrooms were designing posters to hang around the school ahead of a worldwide bullying prevention day next week. She said seven years later, how schools approach identifying bullying has changed.

“Is it a conflict, drama going on among friends or groups or is it in fact bullying?” Lehnherr said of their assessment. “If it is bullying, [we share] what are the steps we’re going to take to try and rectify that situation.”

Social media has also drastically changed what’s dealt with at school.

“I would say 90-95 percent of kids have phones and they are attached to them,” Lehnherr said. “So how they feel about themselves and what’s going on with their peers are directly related to that phone.”

That’s one of the challenges with the curriculum, is that it largely hasn’t been updated for the lower grades since 2009.

There’s also no mandatory reporting of bullying incidents statewide, no standard required policy for districts to have a specific definition or response to bullying, and no funding mechanism for schools to pay for staff training.

But state officials said what they started years ago is making a measurable difference.

“We have greater efforts around education, building empathy. We have more support for students’ mental health, and we have a different approach for engaging students that’s led to fewer suspensions and expulsions,” said Steve Fernan, assistant director of the Student Services Prevention and Wellness team for DPI.

In Lehnherr’s classroom, she said she regularly thinks about what happened at Weston and how to prevent it.

“It’s what can I do to make a difference?” Lehnherr said. “How can I have one less child be bullied or to the degree that they feel such frustration or hopelessness, that they attempt suicide, they’re successful in the suicide attempt or they act out on other people?”

Badger Ridge Middle School is one of many across the area that will be celebrating “Blue Shirt Day” on Monday to raise awareness of bullying prevention in their schools.