- Associated Press - Saturday, August 29, 2015

GREENWICH, Conn. (AP) - Days away from the start of what would have been his senior year at Greenwich High School, the late Bart Palosz is still remembered.

To many students, parents and educators, he is known simply as Bart. Since he took his own life after the first day of classes on Aug. 27, 2013, his name has consistently come up in conversations throughout town about bullying.

To some, Bart represents a tragedy that was the product of a systemic failure. A wrongful death lawsuit filed last week by his family argues that educators’ inability to end severe and chronic bullying of Bart contributed to his decision to end his life.

For others, there is a different meaning to his name. While acknowledging that Bart’s death was heartbreaking, school officials say that Greenwich is - more than ever - a community that cares about and works to help its youth. They say that the growing number of student support programs throughout the school district reflects this commitment - although not everyone in the community is convinced that they are doing everything that they could.

“Our aim is to create a learning environment that is respectful and safe through positive and pro-active academic and extracurricular programs and by adult modeling of expected behavior,” said Superintendent of Schools William McKersie. “We hold our students and ourselves as adult role models accountable for respectful and appropriate behavior. There are very strict policies and procedures in place for addressing any observed or reported inappropriate or illegal behavior.”

Bart’s death devastated many in Greenwich and beyond. Compounding the grief were anger and despair about the reports that emerged immediately after he died of Bart being chronically and severely bullied at Western Middle School and Greenwich High. Some students, even those who did not know Bart, felt guilt and shame about his death.

“After what happened, I felt like I failed my school, my grade and my classmates,” Elias Frank, the then-senior class vice president, wrote in an open letter days after Bart’s death. “I generally had no hope for our school, myself and classmates and had almost no desire to return.”

But Frank and many of his peers would end up doing the opposite of retreating. Within a week of the loss of Bart, Frank and several others started an anti-bullying club, GHS Connections, which quickly accumulated several hundred supporters on Facebook. In October 2013, they held an anti-bullying rally at Greenwich High with high-schoolers from Stamford and Norwalk who came to show their solidarity.

School officials and students worked to go beyond just symbolic gestures. A few weeks after Bart died, Greenwich High started a tips line to report bullying, cheating and other problems at the school. But few students availed themselves of the service because they had to identify themselves.

The concept finally gained traction in the fall of 2014 when the high school launched an app through which students could anonymously report their own problems or concerns about their peers. Students felt much more comfortable communicating with educators about sensitive issues without having to identify themselves.

“Out of this tragedy, Anonymous Alerts is an actual tool that can be used to save lives,” said Blake Reinken, who was the Greenwich High student government president in the past school year. “I think Anonymous Alerts is something that will be longstanding at GHS and something that will have benefits, no matter who the students are.”

Within a few months of Bart’s death, many Greenwich High students said they were noticing an improvement in the school’s atmosphere. One student, then-sophomore Ashley Jones, was so moved by the changes that she wrote a letter in the spring of 2014 to Headmaster Chris Winters, which was eventually published on the school’s website.

“Holding the door open for someone and the small smiles received when walking in the hallway make our community the strong one that it is,” Jones wrote. “People going out of their way to help one another is a beautiful thing, but the little things hold just as much power.”

At the same time, the high school has maintained its commitment to support programs that preceded Bart’s death. Among the most prominent is the Names Day initiative that Greenwich High organizes each year with the Anti-Defamation League. During the event, upperclassmen share with ninth-graders experiences in which they have been victims, perpetrators or bystanders to bullying.

In the past two years, the district has started and expanded a number of student support and mentoring programs in the younger grades as well. Teen Talk, run jointly with the Greenwich nonprofit Kids in Crisis, is one of the most widely praised initiatives. It places a counselor in each of the three district middle schools, provides 24-hour counseling for at-risk students and runs small group sessions and class presentations.

Teen Talk started about 10 years ago at Western Middle School - where Bart was a student - and expanded last year to Central Middle School. It is launching next month at Eastern Middle School.

“The counselors have been reframing the issue of bullying and looking at it in more in the light of peer conflict,” said Debbie Katz, Kids in Crisis’ director of outreach and community initiatives. “They’re trying to start working with the kids when something is at a stage where there is some conflict and helping kids to solve the conflict before it gets to the level of bullying.”

School officials also point to their efforts to instill accepting and inclusive values in students with programs focused on the district’s core principles, which educators refer to as “norms.” Those norms include caring for self and others.

“I do believe that the district norms, which have been standardized across the elementary and middle schools, are having a real impact in creating a culture and behavioral expectations that are in keeping with a safe school climate for all,” said Board of Education member Laura Erickson, who has a son going into 12th grade at the high school.

The Board of Education has made student well-being a greater priority as well. In the spring of 2014, it made policy changes to clarify how staff can support students and prevent “unacceptable behavior” including bullying. That initiative started before Bart’s death.

Students and parents generally report that the district’s schools are safe and supportive environments, according to recent statistics. In a survey given last year, about 90 percent of Greenwich High students said they felt safe at school all or most of the time, and about 80 percent said they felt that their peers treated them fairly all or most of the time.

But some students and parents say educators are still not doing enough and that some children are still bullied without swift action by staff or proper punishment of the perpetrators. In the survey, about half of Greenwich High students said that they had seen or heard other students being treated unfairly by their peers because of their physical appearance, sexual orientation or academic performance.

Audrey Niblo, a recent graduate of Greenwich High who was bullied when she was in middle school, said school officials have made progress in the past two years tackling bullying. But she said that the work is far from done.

“I firmly believe that, as a whole, the Greenwich district needs to start in pre-k or kindergarten,” Niblo said. “It is as simple as teaching children ‘treat others how you want to be treated’ and that everyone is different and that you can’t be mean to someone simply because they aren’t like you.”

And debate about what exactly led to Bart’s death is far from over. Unless it is settled quickly out of court, the Paloszes’ lawsuit will likely continue to stoke discussion and scrutiny of the district’s record on combating bullying. Some will also continue to doubt that school officials have learned lessons from Bart’s death as long as a town report on his school experiences remains incomplete and unpublished.

School board members said that they are not complacent. Monitoring student well-being is a cornerstone of the district’s new long-term “strategic” plan. Jennifer Dayton, the board’s vice chairman, said she wants to make sure the plan measures the quality and scope of support for students.

“That should include student data on proactive grade-appropriate curricula, peer recognition and prevention training,” Dayton said. “That also should include measures on responsiveness by administrators, parents, school-based mental health providers, district social workers and outside providers of student support services.”

Fellow board member Peter Sherr said that he does not doubt that tackling bullying is a top priority for his board colleagues. But he said that he is concerned that the board has not spent enough time on the issue. While the board often reviews reports that relate to bullying, it has not held a meeting solely devoted to the problem since Bart died.

“The board has an ongoing problem setting priorities for the district,” Sherr said. “Although we’ve taken concrete actions on the policy for general student well-being, I’m not sure the board has spent enough time looking specifically at bullying prevention programs over the last two years.”

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Information from: Greenwich Time, http://www.greenwichtime.com

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