The Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center in Maitland wants to put a stop to bullying and prevent situations, such as the one in Seminole County last month, from going too far.
Studies have shown that bullying can lead to poor self-esteem, deep psychological problems and even suicide. In April, 20 percent of Orange County students said they disagree or strongly disagree with the statement “I feel safe in my school,” according to the Orange County Public School Climate Survey of grades 6_12
The Holocaust Center’s anti-bullying program, which launches in some schools in December, will focus on dealing with a situation before it gets out of hand.
One such incident happened in Sanford. On Sept. 3, James Willie Jones took matters into his own hands and stormed onto a Seminole County school bus to threaten students for bullying his 13-year-old daughter, who suffers from cerebral palsy.
“When situations like the one in Sanford make it onto the news, it reiterates the fact that this has been an issue for such a long time and even just bringing a new program into schools opens doors,” said Regina Klaers, spokeswoman for Seminole County Public Schools.
“If there is one good thing to come out of the situation in Sanford, it’s that people are starting to say, ‘We have to talk about this; we have to help our kids to help themselves and help each other.’”
Educating the children
The Holocaust Center was recently awarded a $75,900 grant by the Community Foundation of Central Florida for its new anti-bullying initiative, Make My School a Bully-Free Zone, which will begin by serving seventh grade students in 10 of the 38 middle schools in Orange County in December, and eventually working with students in the majority of the county’s middle schools.
Osceola County, which has seven middle schools, and Seminole County, which has 12, have also expressed the intent to participate in the initiative.
The project’s goal is “to provide programs and support projects that challenge intolerance and help create a community where each person feels safe and welcomed,” according to the concept paper for the Center’s new anti-bullying project.
“Surveys indicate that the most vulnerable age for creating or destroying feelings of self-worth is early adolescence and that anti-bullying programs can be most effective with pre-teen and young teens. For this reason, middle schoolers are the preliminary focus of the initiative,” the concept paper states.
The program will focus not on the bullies themselves, and not even on the victims, but on the bystanders.
“Peer pressure works,” said Susan Mitchell, project director of the Holocaust Center. “And we can make it work for good with this program, which is built around the psychology of bullying.”
Mitchell explained that the kids whose minds are most likely to be changed about bullying are the 80 percent who are not bullies or their victims, but the bystanders.
“The best intervention for a bully is for their peers to say, ‘cut it out’, and those bystanders can become what we call ‘upstanders’ — someone who’s willing to stand up and protect another person,” she said.
Training the teachers
Laura “Junie” Albers-Biddle, instructor in the University of Central Florida Department of Child, Family and Community Sciences, thinks these ideas should be communicated early-on in the classroom, and she teaches future teachers how to do that.
“One of my assignments in my early education classes is to develop a lesson plan that would help children understand the concept of tolerance and to integrate things like multicultural, handicapped and gender situations.”
She uses websites like teachingtolerance.org, which is geared toward educators with resources for lesson plans, building a positive classroom environment and anti-bias education.
Integrating these ideas and attitudes into the everyday curriculum in the classroom is essential. For example, she suggests reading books to the class where the main characters stand up for themselves, such as the popular children’s book “Swimmy”.
“That’s subtly teaching kids that they can stand up together against bullying, that they aren’t alone,” Biddle said.
Call 407-628-0555 for more information on the new anti-bullying initiative, Make My School a Bully-Free Zone.