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Getting an early start in curbing bullying

Ashland elementary school begins program to promote positive behavior

ASHLAND -- Waiting until middle school to confront the problem of bullying is too late, according to Ashland educators, who have piloted an antibullying program at David Mindess Elementary School this year.

As part of the program, teachers at the grade 3 to 5 school spend time each week talking with their students openly about the problem of bullying.

Karen Maxwell, a third-grade teacher at the school, said this has been a powerful experience. During one of her weekly sessions, Maxwell asked her students to write down whether they felt they had been bullied or left out by other students.

Almost everyone said they had.

"I think it helped the kids realize they're not alone in this; they're not the only one who gets teased," she said. "Everyone feels this way at some point in their school career."

A 2001 study from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that about 16 percent of students at the middle and high school levels reported being bullied.

Nancy Mullin, director of Wellesley College's Project on Teasing and Bullying, said the only appropriate response is for schools to reach students earlier.

"You want to set the tone as early as possible when dealing with bullying," said Mullin, who is also a consultant for Mindess Elementary on its antibullying program. "At Mindess, they're doing this. They're really making this a part of the fabric of their school."

As Ashland and other school districts implement such programs, some legislators in Massachusetts are backing a new bill that would require every school to institute an antibullying plan.

The bill is now being considered by the Legislature's education committee, Senator Robert Antonioni, chairman of the committee, said.

State Senator Jarrett Barrios, a Cambridge Democrat who is one of the bill's authors, said part of his motivation for filing the bill was a concern that some suburban school districts might never implement an antibullying program on their own.

"They're afraid it might make them look bad," he said.

In Ashland there is no such fear. Mindess Elementary assistant principal Jane Mason said interest from parents led to the decision to adopt an antibullying program.

The school is using the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, which has been in place at Ashland Middle School for several years.

The program is comprehensive, Mullin said; it includes everything from training teachers and administrators on how to approach the problem, to helping a school revise its bullying policies.

Fran Firth, a parent of a fourth-grader at Mindess Elementary, said she believes the emphasis on classroom discussion is a good match for the elementary school level, because younger students are more likely to talk about bullying issues.

"They're more willing to open up, to ask questions," Firth said.

The school has also tried to promote positive behaviors, rather than just discouraging negative ones, said Melissa Chandonnet, who teaches a multiage class at Mindess.

In February, the school asked students to write another student's name on a heart if they saw the student doing something kind. The hearts quickly filled a wall in the main hallway of the school, and "the kids loved it," Chandonnet said.

Mindess officials say they plan to continue to make antibullying efforts a part of the school for years to come.

The school will survey students this fall to see if anything has changed about their feelings since last fall, when the initial survey was taken.

Maxwell said she has already seen some evidence that the school culture is improving, however. Recently, she saw a girl who was often by herself at recess asked to join in helping to catch a dragonfly.