By Kristine Gill
Education and not punishment could be the solution to bullying for Austintown schools.
That’s the hope of assistant principals David Mullane and Jim Penk of Austintown Middle School. The two are looking to implement a Saturday school that would teach students accused of bullying about the impact of their actions.
“I usually ask a bully if they’ve ever been picked on,” Mullane said. “It’s really amazing when you make them stop and think about that.”
Mullane and Penk have had a Saturday-school plan in the works but revamped it after a recent conference for educators in Columbus on bullying. Now the two-hour class would begin with a type of training video — they’ve screened more than a dozen — followed by discussion and activities.
A class would take place once a month with an estimated 15 students.
“I really like that they want to be proactive,” Superintendent Vince Colaluca said, adding that the district partners with the Help Hotline Crisis Center to provide similar assistance. Its website TeenHealthIssues.org addresses bullying and other problems teens face. The Safe and Drug Free Schools initiatives that would address bullying have lost federal funding and are at risk of disappearing in the district.
Colaluca said the Saturday program would have to be approved by the board of education.
AMS also is looking into an anonymous reporting service that would give students the option of identifying themselves when sending tips to school administrators and counselors about bullying they’ve observed or experienced. A company has offered to let the school pilot the program for the rest of the academic year at no charge. Continuing the service would cost the district $100 a month.
Among the difficulties AMS staff encounters are the nuances of bullying incidents. If a student is caught using his cell phone or violating the dress code, an agreed-upon progression of punishments is enforced after each offense. Verbal warnings usually are followed by detentions, then in-school and out-of-school suspensions.
Not so with bullying.
“That’s why the reporting part is huge, because that’s why you can’t set the line of discipline in stone,” Mullane said. “By the time we find out, you’ve already done something that constitutes a steeper punishment.”
Penk announced the plan to a lunchroom full of 400 students recently and said the idea of having to come to school on the weekend was enough to get them talking.
“That’s what happens when you can lay out the discipline,” he said.
The student handbook and code of conduct would be updated with the new consequences. It lists policies on assault, battery, fighting, intimidation and harassment among other offenses but not under the term “bullying.”
AMS documents reports of bullying with bright-orange forms. Bright-blue forms go home to parents of students accused of bullying when an incident is reported.
“We have seen no recidivism after they sign that blue form,” Mullane said.
Boardman High School has a Saturday school that acts as an alternative to suspension in which students do silent work beginning at 8 a.m. Superintendent Frank Lazzeri said students who have committed infractions for bringing cell phones to schools, excessive tardiness or harrassment are sent.
“Children like to sleep in on Saturdays,” Lazzeri said. “They come in. They can’t sleep. They’ve got to bring work with them. It’s not a pleasant thing.”