- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2001

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. Chelwood Elementary School Principal Jack Vermillion says he's not troubled by the number of children who come to him with complaints about bullies.

He's not worried, he says, because he sees bad behavior outside the classroom in major decline in part because students are sounding the alarm and coming up with solutions before things get out of hand.

"I'm having a lot more kids tell me about a problem, but usually they're telling the bullies to stop before they come tell me," he says.

Some Albuquerque schools, like Chelwood, are trying to stop bullying before it starts. Mr. Vermillion's school is one of more than 20 in the district using new programs to deal with bullies.

The programs are designed to encourage kids to respond on their own to a bully, to defuse a bully's aggression and get other students to help before running to an adult.

Anti-bully program advocates like Mr. Vermillion are looking at their efforts as a real antidote to fears about school safety.

He says the results of the program, which he started using for the first time this school year, have been dramatic.

Sure, bullying still happens, especially with older kids leaning on the younger ones, but Chelwood students apparently know they can take their problems to one another or to their teachers for resolution.

Credit, Mr. Vermillion says, goes to a program that includes a year-opening assembly devoted to bullying and periodic sessions throughout the year with the school's counseling staff.

The program originated with a collection of educators, psychologists and counselors in Colorado who recognized the need to do something for the youngest of schoolchildren.

"Kids were telling me they feel scared, and there were some who said their teachers just didn't believe them," says Carla Garrity, one of the authors of "Bully-Proofing Your School." Miss Garrity was a psychologist in private practice in Denver and started working with educators in 1992 to observe playground behavior with an eye to figuring out how bullies could be stopped before they go too far.

"We watched the kids that weren't falling prey to the bullies, the ones that were handling things well," she says.

Those kids did some pretty unusual things. Most times, she says, potential victims would simply agree with the bully, or crack a joke, or would refuse to fight back. Other times, Miss Garrity said, they would try to get other kids on their side, so the bully wasn't able to put the squeeze on a single victim.

Her system pulls those observations together into a few principles even first-graders can learn. They learn a couple of simple slogans that encourage them to assert themselves, to avoid situations where a bully has the upper hand and to be calm.

It helps, too, that every week, all Chelwood students say a pledge promising not to bully others and to help fellow students.

This is the key to the program mobilizing those kids who might just stand by and watch a bully pick on somebody. "About 80 percent of the kids are neither bullies nor victims; they're a silent majority," Miss Garrity says. "We're trying to turn them into a caring majority."

At Chelwood on a recent morning, counselor Pandi Walsh met with students in first and second grades to talk about bullying and how they should respond to it.

One student, a first-grader named Marcus, told Miss Walsh he and a friend had recently been pushed around by a bully on the playground.

"And what did you do?" she asked.

"I told him, 'Stop bullying my friend, please,' " Marcus said. "And then we went to tell the duty [teacher]."

This is part of the system Mr. Vermillion says is working for his school.

"It's not just about little kids," says school district violence prevention specialist Laurie Austin. She sees the children helped by these programs growing up to be less violent students at middle school and high school and less violent adults as well.

"You look at what these bullies do, and it's almost like they're little domestic abusers in the making," she says. The power dynamics are the same bullies and perpetrators of domestic violence use a skewed power balance over the long term to work their damage.

Some studies of high school students show a level of threats and insecurity that's interfering with education. A 1999 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that 7.7 percent of high school students in New Mexico stayed home at least one day in a month because they felt threatened at school.

• Distributed by Scripps Howard

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