Model Programs/Best Practices

Students Lead the Way in Fight Against Bullying

Location: Idaho By Becky Lewis Published June 2015

Come October, a special dance is being planned for Lakeside Junior-Senior High.

It’s not a Homecoming Dance. It’s not a Halloween event. It’s not a Harvest Festival.

It’s a Bullying Prevention Dance as part of National Bullying Prevention Month observances, and it’s just one piece of a student-driven anti-bullying campaign that has helped lead to a 30-percent reduction in bullying and harassment at the Plummer, Idaho school.

“With an issue that is so personal like bullying, it has to be solved by the people that it affects the most, and that’s the students. We can talk around it all day as adults, but it’s when you see students get involved that you see positive change,” says Judi Sharrett, superintendent of the 400-student Plummer-Worley School District, which consists of Lakeside Elementary in addition to the junior-senior high. “Ever since I was a principal, I have thought that students learning the conflict resolution skills they need to deal with this themselves was important.”

Plummer-Worley had anti-bullying policies and procedures in place a year before a state mandate went into effect, implementing that procedural change when Sharrett became superintendent in 2009. The student-driven efforts started in September 2014 when some 40 students from various grade levels at both the Lakeside public schools and the Coeur D’Alene Tribal School in nearby DeSmet attended a student leadership forum on bullying and harassment. Coordinated by Oregon Health Equity Alliance, a non-profit coalition that addresses health inequality through education, advocacy and policy change, that first forum led to students’ meeting with an Equity Alliance representative several other times during the school year. The group came up with a formal plan and presentation that they gave before the school board and the community, which included the upcoming dance, already-successful tip boxes located in all four school buildings, anti-bullying posters and generally watching out for each other.

“Since the student involvement has been initiated, I think the students are policing themselves a lot more, and we’re getting fewer complaints for the counselors to look into,” Sharrett says.

Reported bullying and harassment incidents fell from 20 in 2013-2014 to 14 during 2014-2015, a 30-percent reduction. Although the numbers may sound low, she is quick to say that small school districts face the same bullying issues as do larger ones, including cyberbullying, which “sneaks up on our students just like it does everywhere else. It can be very covert for a long time and is probably the most hurtful thing that kids are going through right now. We try to make it non-threatening to report and we look into the issues, and it is hard to separate issues at school from issues on Facebook.”

Plummer-Worley has used a grant to have consultants and behavioral support organizations work on creating a more positive school climate for students and staff, and also has had community forums and discussions to promote involvement, both before and during the student-driven initiative. The Coeur D’Alene Tribe Social Services Department has been a strong partner in that community effort from the beginning, and Bernie LaSarte of the tribe’s Stop Violence Against Indian Women Program has also seen a significant reduction in bullying reports.

“I would get calls from parents whose kids were being bullied in school, and I would go to the school to advocate for the students. That’s how I came to realize they were having issues at the school too,” LaSarte says. She and other representatives from the tribe worked closely with Plummer-Worley administration in the development of the school’s anti-bullying policy and its subsequent adoption by tribal services.

“My program has been going into the schools and teaching awareness for years, but having the whole community become involved was another thing altogether,” she adds.

“We’ve expanded the limited resources of a small school district by building partnerships. Equity Alliance works with the students on surfacing their issues and relating to them honestly, and we’ve worked very proactively with the Coeur D’Alene tribe to solve problems together. Many tribal members perceive this as a serious issue,” says Sharrett. Plummer, a town of slightly more than 1,000 residents that includes the public school district, is located on the reservation, and the 16 departments of the tribal government, including the 14-member Coeur D’Alene Tribal Police Department, are also located in Plummer. (The town itself also has a two-person police department as part of the city government.)

LaSarte says that many of those 16 departments have become involved in that effort, and for several years during the initial phases of the project, the Stop Violence Against Indian Women project sponsored poster and essay contests and conducted regular anti-bullying education efforts in the schools prior to the task force’s moving into the student-led phase of the effort.

“It’s really exciting to see the kids interested in solving the issues themselves. The key is student engagement, and also community engagement. In a small community, there is a lot of power in consistency among community agencies,” Sharrett says.  

The student-driven initiative started during the 2014-2015 year with a focus on students in grades 6 through 12, who received classroom lessons on how to deal with a bully, whether they are being bullied themselves or they see bullying between other people. Those lessons have included strategies such as walking away, increasing your self-confidence and not permitting the bully to get the upper hand, and most importantly, reporting the situation to a trusted adult. Next year, those students will begin mentoring the younger ones, passing those lessons on.

“A lot of things are coming together to help create a better environment so that kids aren’t being bullied, or if they are bullied, they know what to do. And what better way to make those changes than having the older students share their skills with the younger ones?” Sharrett says.

LaSarte adds that the effort has been quite an undertaking for the small community, but the working relationship has been strong and she has seen positive change since Sharrett became superintendent: “I used to get a lot of calls from parents, and some of it was really wicked and violent stuff. In this past school year, I got only one call, which I hope means we’re on the right track. You hear about the increase in violence in schools, and it has to stem from someplace. If it stems from bullying, which is my belief, then let’s try to get it stopped before it gets to the violence level.”