Sticks and Stones: Cheyenne schools reeling from tragedy

Jan 13, 2012

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Last spring, Laramie County school district number one, which serves all of Cheyenne, started working on its bullying plan.  It will train everyone from teachers to students. Recently, the district was reminded how important these efforts are as Wyoming Public Radio’s Bob Beck reports.

BOB BECK: It’s lunchtime at McCormick Junior High School in Cheyenne.  Laramie County district one is the largest school district in the state and also the most diverse.  That means the district has similar challenges to those in suburban areas, including bullying.  Principal Jeff Conine says it is popular say that there is too much hype about bullying.

JEFF CONINE: I don’t think it’s being blown out of proportion.  Regardless of whether it is physical bullying or emotional bullying, even if a kid comes to school knowing that every day I show up for social studies class the other kids are going to make fun of my clothes, then how can I focus on Social Studies that day.   

BECK: Conine says bullying is more high tech and covert than it used to be.  He says today says much of it comes from texting or Facebook, which makes it difficult for parents and teachers to know its happening.  But he says it can also make the attacks nastier.

CONINE: In kid’s eyes it’s easier to say horrible things about each other, because you are not face to face.  The bullying I see has changed from the physical pushing, shoving and mean bullying, to more of bullying with words and hurt.  

BECK: And District Superintendent Mark Stock says that children today have more pressures and because of societal changes, are less equipped to deal with these attacks. 

MARK STOCK: I believe that students are coming in, in greater waves without as many safety nets and security and family as they have in the past.  Perhaps don’t have as many influential adults as they used to.

BECK: Stock says it means that young people are more sensitive and it can lead to serious problems.

STOCK: There’s kids where the ramifications are a lot more serious.  They range from severe instances from Columbine down to suicide and everything in between.  And you didn’t hear about those instances as often as you do today, even though kids have always picked on other kids.

BECK: There is playful bantering in the halls of McCormick Junior High School, but this has been a tough time throughout the school district.  13-year-old Alex Frye recently killed himself and, to the surprise of many at his school, the family blamed bullying.  McCormick Principal Jeff Conine says that’s why the district’s anti-bullying efforts are important.

CONINE: I think so, absolutely.  Incredibly tragic, it’s the slap in the face maybe that makes adults aware that, boy, we have a deeper issue here than some hurt feelings.       

BECK: Conine and Bain elementary school Principal Todd Burns just returned from a training that will be one of the two main tools the district will be using to combat bullying.

One effort will be to train student leaders, the other will train everyone in the school system on how to intervene and report it.  Burns is very excited, because the program he and Conine attended promises to reduce bullying from 20-50 percent.  One key component deals with bystanders.

TODD BURNS: A lot of times a lot of people see bullying and they may go well, it’s not happening to me so I’m just going to stay out.  And so what we want to do is take kids from that non-participant or semi-participant, for the lack of a better term henchman role.  And  move those kids along that bullying circle to where they become defenders. 

BECK: School board member Glenn Garcia is a clinical social worker in Cheyenne and he is fully on board with the district’s approach.  Especially when it comes to getting witnesses off the sidelines.  Following the Alex Frye tragedy he is begging people to report. 

GLENN GARCIA: What you find out after the fact is that a lot of kids will say, ‘Yes, I knew he was bullied, I was concerned that they were exhibiting suicidal behavior or something was going on with them.’  And they will report that after the fact.  But what we need to change as far as our culture is to get kids to report that before they have a bad outcome.

BECK: Garcia says bullying is just one reason someone would choose to take their life.  He urges people to report any concerns they may have about a young person. Both Burns and Conine say they do hear more from students and parents than they have in the past, and Superintendent Mark Stock says a program of students called Safe School ambassadors recently had a success story.

STOCK: One day one of the students was sitting in the lunch room and there is a little group of kids, one youngster goes trotting by with his lunch tray and one of the kids at the table turned and said get out of here.  We don’t want you, we don’t want you in our group, and you are not welcome here.  One of the students who was trained in Safe School ambassadors, stood up, looked around and said we have a table here with two extra chairs, let’s go over here.

BECK: Stock says other students moved to the table to join them and that silenced the bully.  Stock says it gave him hope about their approach.   
For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Bob Beck.