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'We're No. 5' in 2012? Bullying prevention efforts making a difference in Gilmer County Schools

By Dendra Miller,
News Editor

The fact that bullying was taking place at a seemingly high rate in Gilmer County Middle and High School is no secret, but a recently released report named Gilmer in the top five schools in West Virginia for this bad behavior.

In June of this year, the West Virginia Department of Education released a report entitled: A descriptive analysis of harassment, intimidation and bullying student behaviors: 2011-2012.

While this report is based on numbers from past years, it provides a picture of Gilmer County in relation to the rest of the state in bullying behaviors.

In 2011, the WV Legislature addressed the problem by enacting WV Code 18-2C, which requires schools to report disciplinary actions taken by a school for harassment, intimidation and bullying behaviors. Under this code, the aforementioned undesirable conduct is treated collectively.

When looking at the totals for county school systems across the state, Kanawha, Cabell, Mercer, Berkeley and Upshur were the top five for discipline referrals. However, when the information was viewed as a percentage of student enrollment, only Upshur County remained on that list.

According to the report, 7.6% of all students in Upshur County were referred to administrators for harassment, intimidation or bullying. Mingo County took the #2 spot, with 5.8%.

Gilmer County ranked #3 in the state with 5.37% of students being reprimanded for bullying, etc. The report lists a total enrollment for Gilmer County of 931 students with 50 referrals for the 2011-12 school year.

Lewis County (5.1%) and Pocahontas County (4.8%) rounded out the top five.

The report also noted that 73% of all discipline referrals statewide were given to male students and more than half (53%) were reported at the middle school level. Only 18% of referrals came from elementary schools and 26% from the high school level.

In Feb. of 2012, the issue at Gilmer County High School even got coverage on the local evening news after one student began cutting herself, allegedly because of the bullying. According to that report, she left the high school to continue her education through home schooling.

In a telephone interview with GCHS Principal Nasia Butcher, the numbers from the report were broken down to give a more realistic picture of the atmosphere at the high school. Mrs. Butcher explained that 30 of the 50 total referrals were associated with the middle or high school.

Twenty-seven of those were handled with a "harassment letter" which both student and parents must sign. In most cases, once parents were notified of the problem, the behavior stopped, according to Butcher. The remaining seven referrals resulted in out of school suspension.

"We don't want to suspend students because it leaves them with unexcused absences and can result in truancy," said Mrs. Butcher, "but we aren't afraid to suspend students if their actions warrant that discipline."

Things have gotten better and Butcher noted that there have been zero office referrals for harassment, intimidation or bullying this year.

She warns that a lot of the bullying starts on social media websites like Facebook. Then, when students get to school and see each other face to face, problems can arise. The principal encourages parents to monitor their children's activity on the internet.

Throughout the course of the school year, each student at GCHS is required to complete a cyber bullying course. The school has arranged assemblies for the entire student body on the same topic. Gilmer County Prosecuting Attorney Gerry Hough has given a presentation on the social media and the legal ramifications of its misuse. State Police officers have even talked to different groups.

These are just some of the things that have been done to improve the behavior and environment at the school. The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program is still being used for K through 8 students, while students in grades 9 through 12 address the issues through character education.

"Through our efforts, we have seen a decrease in bullying, harassment and intimidation," said Butcher. "I am optimistic that we are making strides in that area."

She is also making an effort to recognize students who exhibit good behavior and character traits. The "Titan Bolts" initiative rewards students caught in the act of doing something good.

Every week, faculty and staff have the opportunity to submit students' names for a drawing if they witnessed a kind act or saw improvement in a student's attitude or test scores. Then, Mrs. Butcher draws one name to receive a prize. The adult who submitted the name gets a little reward, too! At the end of the 9 weeks' grading period, she plans to have a "second chance drawing" where all the students who didn't win the weekly drawing have another chance for a reward. She plans to select up to five winners.

"I don't want to just punish bad behavior, I want to highlight good behavior," said Mrs. Butcher.
School administrators are still trying to get the message out to the younger students as well, before they reach middle school. Most recently, Glenville, Normantown and Sand Fork Elementaries gathered at Glenville Elementary to see a presentation from the J Line Dance Crew. The main "speaker" shared his message of tolerance and kindness through song and dance.

Overall, the atmosphere seems to be getting better. Maybe all the talking is finally sinking in. Maybe students are understanding more about the effects of bullying on the victim and the aggressor. At any rate, high school and middle school are hard enough without fighting with ones peers, so the current report from Mrs. Butcher is encouraging.

If your child is the victim of bullying at school, contact the principal and/or teacher immediately. Sometimes just bringing it out in the open will stop it.