Pr. George's school launches anti-bullying campaign

Members of the student government association wear T-shirts and carry signs to combat bullying as part of a program they hope to expand throughout the county.
Members of the student government association wear T-shirts and carry signs to combat bullying as part of a program they hope to expand throughout the county. (Christopher Anderson)
By Andrew Waite
The Gazette
Thursday, March 3, 2011

Jalen Fisher, an Oxon Hill High School sophomore, admits he used to be a cyberbully. He would post mean comments about fellow classmates on Twitter. Sometimes his posts included unflattering pictures.

"I would say horrible things," Jalen, a 15-year-old Clinton resident, said last Wednesday. "It was just a lot of anger bottled up inside me. Normally, I'm this bubbly person. I like to talk. But then on Twitter, I'm this dark, horrible person."

Not anymore. Not after listening to his peers. Now Jalen considers himself one of the first success stories to come from Oxon Hill High School's One Less Bully, One More Friend campaign. The school's student government association started the anti-bullying effort in November after online and in-person heckling became disruptive.

Principal Jean-Paul Cadet said bullying was not out of control at the school, but it still posed a problem. He cited a recently example of students posting inappropriate comments on Web sites about other students, Cadet said.

Now, the student government association is hoping to take the campaign countywide. Student leaders already have the principal's support and that of the district's school board representative. The next step will be getting county schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. on board. Students met with Hite on Monday to see whether he would encourage other schools in the county to institute similar programs.

Hite said the campaign fits into the school system's anti-bullying mission.

"Systemwide, we've developed a zero-tolerance bullying policy and trained students, parents, employees and community members. We've also increased reporting and investigations," Hite said. "However, I predict nothing will have greater impact and value than empowered students who simply refuse to tolerate bullying in their schools."

The program, overseen by Oxon Hill High School teacher Paulette Brown, works to combat bullying in a number of ways. Students raise awareness about the issue every Wednesday by wearing One Less Bully T-shirts. Some students sling signs over their necks with messages such as "Bullying is for the birds," and "I was bullied."

Students also go into classrooms once a week during the student government class and ask other students to share their experiences with bullying. Peer mediation could follow and, if needed, teachers such as Brown intervene.

The student-initiated dialogue has been eye-opening and has altered behaviors, Cadet said.

"I've seen a change in the student climate in terms of the way students talk to each other and the way they are interacting with each other," Cadet said. "They are more engaged in each other's well-being."

Brown, who also handles conflict resolution at the school, said the program has triggered more students to seek remedies for bullying.

The school did not provide fighting statistics or any tangible evidence of reduced bullying by press time.

Anecdotally, One Less Bully is "making a difference, but it's a slow difference," Brown said.

Cadet said students need to feel comfortable and safe at school if they are going to be able to concentrate on their studies.

Students said the program is effective because it's run by them, not the adults.

"We have a lot of influence on one another. With this campaign being student-run, that's better than it being teacher-run. I don't think it would have as much of an effect on our student body," junior Jessica Josey said.

The Prince George's County Public School System's code of conduct addresses bullying by describing its behaviors and explaining how to report it. Additionally, counselors have developed a PowerPoint presentation on bullying and conduct regular lessons on the topic. But there are no countywide, student- run anti-bullying campaigns.

School board member Edward P. Burroughs III (Dist. 8), whose district includes Oxon Hill High School, said the student-centric focus attracts him to the program.

"We can put in all the policies in the world, but students don't pay attention to board policies. Students pay attention to the people they look up to," said Burroughs, who graduated in May from Crossland High School in Temple Hills. "It's not your principal telling you to stop bullying. It's your friend."

Jasmine Gillispie, Oxon Hill High's junior class president, said she experienced acne problems in middle school and became a victim because of it. Kids called her "pizza face," she said, and she spent a lot of time in the bathroom crying. But then she made a friend, a friend she still considers to be one of her best, and realized she was not alone in the world.

"Just one person standing up for you when you are getting bullied can make a huge difference," Jasmine, a 16-year-old Clinton resident, said. "That's basically what this campaign is about. One person thinking about it can make a big difference in another person's life."

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