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Schools fight against bullying with lessons of kindness, compassion

Twelve-year-old Blake Kitchen (left) was severely beaten during breakfast at Liberty Middle School by the same child who had been bullying his older brother, Preston Kitchen, 14, according to their mother, Destiny Kitchen. She said she had complained in writing to the school last month about the bully. Blake suffered a fractured jaw, skull and damaged inner ear. He returned home this week after five days in the hospital.
Twelve-year-old Blake Kitchen (left) was severely beaten during breakfast at Liberty Middle School by the same child who had been bullying his older brother, Preston Kitchen, 14, according to their mother, Destiny Kitchen. She said she had complained in writing to the school last month about the bully. Blake suffered a fractured jaw, skull and damaged inner ear. He returned home this week after five days in the hospital. The Kansas City Star

Paul Fennewald knows he’s not the first person parents turn to when fear and frustration mount over bullying in school.

Likely the parents fretted with teachers, called on a principal, the superintendent, maybe even board members before they came across his telephone line at the Missouri Center for Educational Safety.

But he gets calls.

“They’re at their wit’s end,” he said. “They don’t know what to do.”

He knows what many parents know, and what startled residents and angry lawmakers are learning in the wake of the news that 12-year-old Blake Kitchen was assaulted in his Liberty Middle School lunchroom and hospitalized.

“It’s a big problem,” Fennewald said. “And there’s no simple solution.”

Should there be laws compelling school systems to have anti-bullying policies and programs?

Both Missouri and Kansas have laws.

The school boards associations in both states provide recommended policies regarding bullying and hazing, regularly reworked to adjust to new trends like cyberbullying. All area districts and public charter schools surveyed by The Star have policies, including Liberty.

Should there be school and community anti-bullying campaigns?

Most every student in area schools and their parents have probably absorbed some combination of assemblies, workshops, brochures, banners and other anti-bullying strategies listed by districts in the survey.

Teachers, staff and bus drivers are trained to build relationships and awareness.

Children are taught to be empowered, to seek help, to give aid and not be bystanders.

And the research that schools compile in surveys such as through the Communities That Care or the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) networks show their efforts are helping students feel safer.

But most every student and parent will assure you that many children still behave like bullies, and many are still bullied and scared.

“It happens daily, and a lot of it is subtle,” said Tim Lewis, a professor of special education at the University of Missouri who is one of the originators of the PBIS safe-school strategies. “Catching it at the early stages is difficult. It’s pervasive, and it vexes and challenges.”

Time was that schools were inclined to assume students know the right behavior and focus their bullying prevention on punishing the bully, Lewis said.

But the programs schools are using today do not assume students know the right actions to take, he said. They teach what respect looks like. They teach kindness and compassion.

Schools train their staffs to watch for children struggling, either as potential perpetrators or victims, and build an environment of support where children are more comfortable sharing their concerns.

Some districts, including Kansas City, Raytown, Independence, North Kansas City, Hickman Mills, Belton and Excelsior Springs, are using PBIS as part of their efforts.

Park Hill, Blue Springs and Lone Jack are among those using the Olweus bullying prevention program created by Norwegian psychology professor Dan Olweus.

Olathe, Center and Kearney are taking on Rachel’s Challenge, inspired by the writings of one of the first victims in the Columbine shootings in 1999.

Surveys suggest that intense efforts will improve school climates and reduce some telltale signs like office referrals, parent calls and absenteeism, but schools can’t easily quantify the violence they prevent.

They know when they fail.

Liberty has anti-bullying efforts at work as well. Staff are trained to build relationships so children feel connected to adults they can go to when they are troubled, Superintendent Jeremy Tucker said.

The district, like several in the Northland, has a Text-a-Tip service through law enforcement’s Crime Stoppers to make anonymous reports. Schools have anonymous hotlines.

A sixth-grade program with the Liberty Police Department aims to help new middle school students make safe choices.

But now Blake, a sixth-grader, is recovering at home after suffering severe head injuries that put him in Children’s Mercy Hospital.

The district is cooperating with police and aiding in the investigation of the eighth-grade student accused of the assault, Tucker said.

“Our concern is with the well-being and recovery of Blake … and making sure he transitions well back into the classroom,” Tucker said.

Bullying is a community issue and the struggles in the schools resonate into homes, educators throughout the area said.

Olathe took its program discussions into community groups to look at comprehensive efforts, Assistant Superintendent Erin Dugan said.

“We want more students reporting,” she said. “We want to be transparent in the community and communicate more with parents.”

Kansas school districts are frequently calling on legal staff at the Kansas Association of School Boards to help guide their anti-bullying campaigns, association attorney Angela Stallbaumer said.

The rural Midway School District in Cass County last fall invited parents to visit with a panel of professionals including juvenile officers, a social worker, mental health counselor and others in building a community safety net.

“This is a topic where we never think we’ve got it covered,” Midway Superintendent Gordon Myers said.

Tucker described such wider, holistic support as one of the priorities determined by its school board this year.

“The well-being of our learners,” he said, depends a lot on how well communities “support the emotional, psychological and mental health needs of them and their families.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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