Clayton News-Star

West Clayton aims to stomp out bullying

Police Capt. Jon Gerrell hands out low-fives as West Clayton Elementary students leave the cafeteria.
Police Capt. Jon Gerrell hands out low-fives as West Clayton Elementary students leave the cafeteria.

More classic than the fist-bump, though not as flashy as finger guns, the high-five will always be cool. Something in the smack of palms clues everyone in that it’s all going to be alright.

The Clayton Police Department handed out high-fives and words of wisdom to students at West Clayton Elementary School on Wednesday, commemorating S.A.V.E. Day. Standing for Students Against Violence Everywhere, the program promotes good decision making and positive conflict resolution with a different focus each year. This year, the school is working to end bullying, said Suzanne Phillips, the program’s director and retired third grade teacher. The program recently won a $1,000 Allstate grant.

“The idea is to make everybody your friend so there will be no bullies,” Phillips said.

Of course, it isn’t always that simple with bullying. Sometimes it seems that no one is safe from a mean-spirited joke or teasing gone too far, not to mention nastiness for nastiness’ sake. In her 25-year teaching career, Phillips said, she saw it all: middle fingers, students pushing one another, incessant tattling.

“Constant tattling on someone who isn’t doing something is actually bullying too,” Phillips said. “(Bullying) is a way of getting attention. If they ever say ‘leave me alone,’ they’re bothered by it, and it isn’t funny.”

From the beginning of her career to the end, Phillips said, bullying seemed to increase substantially, from around one case per year in 1987 to upwards of eight in 2012. She believes bullying is rooted in humor, but often humor at another’s expense.

“I think students’ sense of humor has changed; some of them just think it’s funny,” Phillips said. “I don’t think they do it to be mean or belligerent when they initially begin, but just do it because they think it’s funny and no one has ever redirected them and said to find some other way to be comical.”

The police officers see their role as one of redirection, one they hope can stamp out bullying at the elementary hair-pulling stage before it leads to something criminal later in life.

“This is where it starts,” Capt. Jon Gerrell said. “If we can address the kids at a younger age like this and talk to them, we can influence their decision making and their choice decision making. Bullying is a big thing at these kids’ age right here.”

A half-dozen Clayton police officers dropped in on the school’s classrooms Wednesday morning, talking to students about bullying. Then around lunchtime, McGruff the Crime Dog met students walking into the cafeteria, while officers had lunch with the children. Both Gerrell and Phillips had simple solutions for the complicated issue of bullying.

“The best thing you can do is tell somebody, let somebody know, let a grown-up know, let a parent know, let a teacher know,” Gerrell said. “A lot of the time, people are too scared or too intimidated to say something to somebody. But the biggest thing we’re telling them is to speak up for themselves and for their friends. If they see their friend being bullied on the playground, stand up for them.”

Phillips said there’s success in simply separating students picking on one another, possibly even moving class schedules around.

Phillips said the nature of the Internet could help explain why she saw such an uptick in bullying cases near the end of her career. Everyone, even elementary school students, live digital lives these days, but the pain of cyber bullying is no less real.

“Kids are more heightened and aware of their surroundings and their environment than we probably were,” Gerrell said. “Everyone has the Internet, computers, iPads. They’re curious, they’re interested, they look things up. Unfortunately, part of that too is finding bad things on the Internet.

Phillips said going forward the school will have a “mix it up day” once a month, where students are encouraged to interact and get to know other students they don’t typically spend time with.

“It’s been very well received so far,” she said.

Drew Jackson; 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson