LAWRENCEVILLE — At Five Forks Middle School, students are encouraged to be like Belle from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”
Following a visit at the beginning of the school year from inspirational speaker Mark Brown, Five Forks hung up posters with that message throughout the school. The posters are designed to remind students of Brown’s anti-bullying message: Emulate Belle and reach out to the Beasts of the world with love, so the handsome prince (or princess) inside can be freed.
The posters are just one example of the proactive measures the school staff takes to prevent bullying. Although school counselors said bullying is not a big problem at Five Forks, it’s an issue they take seriously.
“We never ever just slough it off,” said Rob Anderson, the school’s sixth-grade counselor. “We take every bullying and harassment case very seriously.”
According to the 2009 Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 44 percent of middle schools nationwide reported bullying problems, compared to just more than 20 percent of both elementary and high schools.
Nationwide, one-third of teens reported being bullied while at school, according to the 2009 indicators.
In Gwinnett County, 14.6 percent of middle-schoolers and 7.4 percent of high-schoolers said they had been bullied or threatened by other youth within 30 days, according to the 2008 Youth Health Survey, the most recent conducted by the Gwinnett Coaliton for Health and Human Services.
About 20 percent of teens nationwide had been made fun of by a bully, 18 percent had rumors or gossip spread about them, 11 percent were physically bullied (such as being shoved, tripped or spit on), 6 percent were threatened, 5 percent were excluded from activities they wanted to participate in, 4 percent were coerced into doing something they did not want to do and 4 percent had their personal belongings destroyed by bullies.
About two of every three bully victims surveyed said they were bullied once or twice during the school year, one in five were bullied once or twice a month and one in 10 were bullied daily or several times a week. Only about a third of bully victims reported the bullying to someone at school.
That’s something the Five Forks counselors work hard to prevent at their school. Anderson and his colleagues Helen Kruskamp and Kelly Flower said they want students to feel comfortable coming to them to discuss issues.
“We don’t always see the bullying happen, so we have to rely on others to tell us,” said Kruskamp, the eighth-grade counselor.
When problems do happen, the counselors said they want to know so they can intervene. One way the counselors address conflicts that arise between students is mediation.
“Mediation keeps minor things from escalating into major things,” Anderson said. “We try to stomp out the fire before it gets too hot. … The reported retaliation is almost zero once we intervene.”
But counselors don’t just wait for problems to happen, either. Anderson, Flower and Kruskamp take proactive steps to keep bullying and harassment from ever happening.
In advisement sessions, the counselors work with small groups of students, teaching them about topics such as peer pressure and friendship. Classroom teachers also deliver such lessons during advisement.
Flower said they also work to educate parents about bullying and how to spot it. She said the school encourages parents to be advocates for their children.
The prevention of bullying isn’t just limited to Five Forks or even other middle schools.
At the beginning of the year, Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks and the school board discussed bullying as an issue of national concern. Wilbanks said that across the nation, about 160,000 students a day stay home from school because of bullying. He also said there were reported to be 14 student suicides in the United States attributed to bullying last year.
“Our people are looking at it,” Wilbanks told the school board. “We have been trying to review all our actions.
“My concern is that no one has the right to bully. That’s the posture we take. There are a lot of subtle ways it can be done.”
Sue Adair, the director of education for Goddard Systems, said it’s important to teach young children about bullying and prevent bullying by building their confidence and self-esteem.
“It’s not uncommon for young children to engage in unfriendly exchanges,” she said. “Children have to learn to get along with one another. We give them the right tools and traits and get them to understand about kindness and respect for one another — that’s our goal. That’s the best way to prevent bullying.”