Norwich has leadership role in efforts to stop bullying in schools

Norwich - The statewide reputation of the Greater Norwich Anti-Bullying Coalition will land the organization and three local high school students a leadership role in the state's effort to improve the social climate of schools.

Steven Hernandez, director of public policy and research for the Commission on Children, met with eight Norwich school and youth services officials Monday to discuss problems and proposed changes in the state's 12-year-old anti-bullying law.

The new emphasis, he said, will be to change the perception of the law from one that defines bullying and puts the onus on schools to apply the definition to a law that seeks to address student behaviors and improve the learning environment.

Participants in Monday's meeting had ready examples of how the law falls short of protecting students and instead scares school administrators into silence about actions they take in specific cases, citing student privacy.

As legislators consider new changes to the law - possibly influenced by Friday's fatal stabbing of a 16-year-old girl allegedly by a classmate in a Milford high school - the Commission on Children is launching a pilot program to train 30 high-school ambassadors to help improve the social climate in their schools.

The commission has partnered with the Norwich Bully Busters, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and pop star Lady Gaga's anti-bullying Born this Way Foundation to start the ambassador program.

The 30 students - including one each from Norwich Free Academy, Norwich Regional Technical High School and NFA's Sachem transitional program - will come together for the first time June 14 at a gathering at Kelly Middle School. The students, to be selected from different ethnic, economic and geographical backgrounds, will be encouraged to communicate during the summer and to start their ambassadorships in fall.

Next April, the state will host a gala event for the group with a special guest appearance planned by Lady Gaga, Hernandez said.

"I'm here because Norwich is a good partner," Hernandez told representatives from Norwich schools, the Bully Busters program and Norwich Youth and Family Services. "We want to amplify what you're doing."

Lisa Allen, a social worker at Uncas Elementary School in Norwich said she tries to bring a similar concept to her younger students by creating a friendship ambassador program. Participating students wear lanyards that identify them as students who can help new students or students with problems get information or help.

Allen said she would like to see assertiveness training brought into the mix for students as young as kindergarten to teach them how to get along with others and how to recognize when their own behavior is causing a problem.

But Hernandez said the biggest complaint he gets from school officials is that the bullying law is one more unfunded mandate that requires reams of paperwork, mandatory reporting and assessments that consume staff time and limited resources.

That's another reason he gravitated toward the Bully Busters and program founder and coordinator Debbie Kievits. The program runs on a minimal budget, relies on donations and "micro-grants" and the dedication and energy of its leaders and students, Hernandez said.

He uses the program as an example of ways to promote positive social behavior at very low cost.

c.bessette@theday.com

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