It started with a small group of students calling themselves TAXII, for Teens Against Extreme Inappropriate Interactions. Five years later, it’s grown into a districtwide “kindness campaign” that has changed the culture and climate, decreased the number of reported bullying incidents by 83 percent and resulted in a 2017 National Exemplary Program Award from the School Safety Advocacy Council’s National Conference on Bullying.
In 2012, that group of students approached the administration, including Safety Director Justine Pond, with their concerns and “we started to look at what we were doing as a district and realized that we needed a message that was consistent from grade to grade and school to school. We spent a year writing a program and assembling a team with members from every school, and we’ve been building since then.”
The Bullying Prevention Program in the Marion Community Schools encompasses a number of components, ranging from cyberbullying training facilitated by the Indiana State Police to an annual Kindness Assembly where nominated students and faculty are recognized for their efforts and the entire district participates in presenting a paper “kindness chain,” with one link added throughout the year for each kind act carried out by a student.
“It’s a very strong visual for our guests who come to hear about the good things that the students do,” Pond says. In recent years, the chain has wrapped completely around the gymnasium — not once but twice.
Those efforts have not only combined to reduce the incidence of bullying in the school system, they’ve also promoted a greater understanding of what bullying is — and what it isn’t. As Anita Brown, social service specialist at Justice Thurgood Marshall Intermediate School, explains: “Our focus has changed the actual definition of bullying. All of us have seen an increase in using the word in recent years, and a lot of times when we investigate, it’s not really bullying. Bullying is behavior that is unwanted, one-sided and repetitive. We’re teaching both students and parents that, unfortunately, there are mean people in the world, but that is different from bullying.”
And according to Pond, conveying an understanding of what is and isn’t bullying, especially to adults, plays a key role in the education process.
“We investigate all allegations. Even if we think it doesn’t really seem like bullying, we still go through the process and interview everyone involved,” she says. “And if it is bullying, we address the behavior and try to figure out how to stop it, all the while remembering that the person doing the bullying is still just a kid too.”
“Many times the process starts when a student comes to me and tells me something that is going on,” says Ed Velazquez, social service specialist at Marion High School. “Once we’re sure it is bullying, I bring the perpetrators in and read them the riot act. They get a warning and they’re told if it happens again, there will be discipline. Yesterday I had to do that, and the boy who was in trouble came back, kind of sheepishly, at the end of the day, and we had a good talk about why what he was doing was inappropriate. Often, that’s the end of it.”
And while the district continues to work on teaching both students and parents the definition of bullying and also deals with the incidents that actually are bullying, it also focuses on teaching them about social media and cyberbullying, according to Brown: “We want to get everyone using the same language, and we want parents to get used to checking things out with their children. This week alone, I’ve had to deal with three serious incidents involving social media use among children ages 10 to 12.”
“We’re working on rolling out cyberbullying education at all levels, even in preschools,” says Corry Hawkins, social service specialist at Riverview Elementary. “Students are gaining access to technology earlier and earlier, and it’s becoming a bigger and bigger problem. Students don’t know how to interact and be social, not only face to face but online too.”
The Indiana State Police Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and Internet Crimes Against Children Youth Educator Trooper Cathie Bledsoe have also played a key role in helping to promote cyberbullying education. In 2016, Bledsoe gave presentations tailored to grade level to the 3,700 students enrolled in the nine district schools, in addition to presenting to the Grant County School Safety Commission and at a community meeting. Her presentations focused on online safety, privacy protection, and sending and receiving inappropriate pictures, among other topics. Her work supplements that of the Marion Police Department, which places a roving school resource officer in the district schools. Alex Kenworthy, now deputy chief, filled that position for a number of years, and still serves on the Bullying Prevention Program steering committee.
“Everybody pretty much throws the word bullying around these days. Parents call and say their child’s being bullied, and usually, it doesn’t fit the definition,” Kenworthy says. “In the Marion Community Schools, they’ve done a wonderful job of explaining the concept and addressing the actual incidents that unfortunately do occur.”
In fact, Marion Community Schools have done such a good job that after the state adopted a new bullying prevention law, the district served on a committee to help create guidelines and resource materials for the state.
“We want to put what we’ve done out there and make it available for other schools to adapt for their own use,” Pond says.