Fighting for calmer schools

Getting into a fist fight with the school bully isn't perceived as the "macho" response it may have been in years past, say local educators.

To pound that message in, counselors in the Moffat County School District are making the rounds at least once a week to tout an anti-bullying campaign at the preschool and elementary schools.

Teaching students to be kinder to one another is part of the district's umbrella Second Step program.

Second Step is designed to help students deal with a wide array of emotions by giving them a wider cache of tools to resolve issues on their own before a situation becomes explosive.

Previously, students were afforded a counselor's attention on a one-on-one basis as a result of a classroom disruption or outside family issue.

East Elementary School counselor Wendy Nadolny launched into a session on anger management Thursday with the school's fourth-grade students.

"What do you do if someone says something really mean to you?" Nadolny questioned the class. "Do you yell at them or just walk away like it doesn't matter?"

Some students thought an aggressive response was appropriate while others leaned toward an assertive approach.

"Sometimes I just walk away if someone's making fun of me," said fourth-grader Jayme Colvin. "Sometimes I just tell them I don't like that."

Mixed Messages

Colvin's response was right on according to how district educators hope students will respond to peer conflict.

But it may be hard for students to get the district's message when they receive a conflicting one at home, educators said.

"The days of our parents telling us how to fight back are over," said Sunset Elementary School counselor Alison Hobson. "That's not an appropriate message for our kids anymore."

Teaching children to react to conflict with violent responses can become ingrained in a child's brain and carried with them through a lifetime, Hobson said.

Like a sponge, children learn through experiences and often pick up the actions of the their parents.

"The earlier we can get children to learn to calm down the better," she said. "It's significant in how they manage problems later on."

If a parent slaps a toddler's hand for misbehaving that child will become a slapper, Hobson said.

"Parents are their first role model," she said. "If we spank our children they'll hit when they're angry. When a kid gets spanked they focus on the resentment and embarrassment of getting hit and not what that they've done something wrong."

District educators addressed why parents shouldn't spank misbehaving children during a recent Parent's Toolbox session, but the information was met with controversy, Hobson said.

The once-a-month gatherings are designed to give parents pointers on disciplining children that will produce desired results.

Teaching conflict resolution starts early at Moffat County Schools.

Sarah Hepworth, the preschool director the Early Education Center said children are taught to take deep breaths when they get angry.

"At this age we're working more on self-control and how to deal with impulsiveness," she said.

Even young children are exposed to violent images on the media and on the news, Hepworth said.

That makes it difficult for children to distinguish between what is real or fantasy.

"The media has become so real that I think it makes it hard for them," she said.

Fending off trouble

School districts around the nation are keenly aware of the potential of a student's unchecked hostility.

School officials need to look no further than Colorado's tragic Columbine school shootings in 1999. A year earlier, an Oregon student killed two classmates and injured 22 others after killing his parents.

In the years following those shootings, many states adopted laws to prevent violence in schools.

Colorado schools are bound by a "legislative declaration" or anti-bullying policy, which can be considered as good as law, some educators said.

According to the declarations, the state's school districts need to create or enforce individual discipline codes. They must include a policy for student searches and dress code. And all schools also must provide some sort of bully-prevention education.

Anti-bullying messages have largely been touted as one way to fend off major violent incidents in schools.

"Students who have not learned to manage their anger are at risk for aggression, perhaps even violent explosive behavior," according to a U.S. Department of Education report. "In the short-term, anger management techniques generally been shown to have positive effects on the delinquent and problem behaviors of aggressive students."

Threatening students at Moffat County Schools are referred to the district's Violent Risk Task Force.

If the situation can't be resolved through district efforts, students are referred to the juvenile court system, said probation officer Stephanie Mauth.

"Especially since Columbine, you have to take each situation individually," she said.

Students need to know that the consequences for harassment and aggressive behavior have changed over the years.

For example, in a confrontation between two students, one may be charged for teasing and the other for taking a punch.

"They're both held responsible if they step over the line," Mauth said.

She agreed that times have changed.

"When I was growing up, fighting back was status-quo," Mauth said. "I think there are parents out there who still believe that's acceptable."

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or ahatten@craigdailypress.com.

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