South Charlotte

Pineville Elementary focused on bullying

Pineville Elementary has a new strategy for handling bullying - one you might not have heard of.

This year, the school isn't putting the emphasis on the bully or the victim: It's focusing on the bystanders.

Supported by sponsors and donors, the locally run Foundation for Respect Ability works with Operation Respect, an anti-bullying initiative in more than 22,000 schools nationwide.

Using the Operation Respect curriculum called Don't Laugh at Me, the foundation is offering yearlong training for Pineville Elementary, its first pilot school.

The foundation is focused on changing bystanders to "upstanders": students who see bullying and feel confident enough to stand up for the person being bullied. The students are being trained to say, simply and comfortably, "We don't do that here."

Allowing students to diffuse some of the situations develops their confidence while taking away the bully's audience.

"Most of the bullying happens outside the (presence of) adults," said Pineville Elementary Principal Brian Doerer. "There are times you need adult intervention, but there are also times you can solve this on your own."

Among the students at Pineville Elementary, there are about eight languages and 25 countries represented. Doerer said the relationships within the school are in direct correlation to how well the school performs academically. If students feel uncomfortable, they can't learn, he said.

The goal of the program is for students to be in an environment in which they feel more connected, safe and cared for, one in which they can excel.

For Pineville Elementary to be selected as the pilot school, Doerer had to get support from every school employee and agree to incorporate the curriculum throughout the year.

Before school started, the Foundation for Respect Ability, with leaders from Operation Respect, led a two-day program to introduce administrators, teachers and staff to the Don't Laugh at Me program.

"One of the problems is that this whole bullying thing has such a punitive, negative, finger-pointing connotation to it," said Diane Bensen, executive director of the Foundation for Respect Ability.

The Don't Laugh at Me curriculum puts a positive spin on the movement. The children initially are taught through music. At the beginning of the school year, students went to assemblies for three days, where they learned songs written by Peter Yarrow of the legendary folk group Peter, Paul and Mary.

During the school year, they will experience music and the arts, research-based classroom activities and school-wide events and celebrations.

The foundation will be working with Pineville all year and will hold additional workshops for other educators, administrators and community leaders. The foundation soon will appoint additional pilot schools, as well.

If students can be taught empathy, they'll understand what it's like on the other side of bullying, said Bensen. "Then they will say 'We don't do that here.' "