School programs, student club put new emphasis on respect, empathy to deal with issues often mischaracterized as bullying
The term bullying isn’t part of the dialog at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, but words like kindness, respect and empathy are.
These are the tenets of an initiative that has students, teachers, administrators and counselors at the school stressing the importance of being kind to one another.
Students have formed what they call the iCare Club to emphasize the importance of performing simple acts of kindness at and outside of school.
Principal Arlan Galarowicz and Assistant Principal Liz Ferger are teaching students about emotional intelligence, a concept grounded in traits such as empathy and self control that essentially describes the ability to understand and manage emotions.
Counselors are preaching respect.
And parents need to play a role in the effort as well, Galarowicz said.
The niceness movement is all-encompassing, but it lacks the panache of a more trendy title like anti-bullying initiative, and not by mistake. While they take true bullying seriously, school officials said, the term has become a cliche and misused reference to all critical behavior.
“I don’t believe there is bullying in our school,” guidance counselor Suzy Michel said. “Rolling your eyes and teasing isn’t bullying. It’s not being nice, and that’s what we’re working on.”
“A student’s mom called the other day to report her daughter was being bullied at school because some girls told her they didn’t like the color of her leggings,” he said. “That’s not nice, but it’s not bullying.”
The distinction is important, administrators said, because the term bullying suggests an epidemic of meanness that doesn’t exist, a response that isn’t warranted and a characterization of students that isn’t correct. The fact is, students could be nicer and more respectful of one another, and that is what the school is focused on, they said.
“What we’re trying to show students through projects like the iCare Club is that all you have to do is smile at someone who is having a bad day or sit next to someone who is eating lunch alone or hold the door open for someone. Being nice to one another is really that simple,” Michel said. “We’re hoping that bit by bit the focus on niceness will build into something really beneficial, and pretty soon being nice will be just like breathing. It will become automatic.”
The middle school is still smarting from accusations of bullying stemming from a fight between two students that was recorded on a cell phone video camera by another student and posted on Facebook last school year. Administrators said they took the incident seriously, punished the students involved, took steps to prevent similar fights and have been working to lend perspective to what was an isolated incident, not a sign of bullying at the school.
“Eighty percent of last year’s eighth-grade class was never once referred to the office (for discipline),” Galarowicz said. “Thirteen percent were referred to the office at some point because they’re kids, and kids make mistakes.
“Only 7% were habitually referred to the office. This is the 7% that don’t think they have to follow the rules because their parents don’t expect them to.”
It should go without saying that parents, not just schools, bear responsibility for how children act, Galarowicz said, but that fact seems lost in the rush to blame schools for bad behavior.
“We only have these kids in school for 17% of their lives, yet we get blasted for most of the problems involving kids,” he said. “There are no bad kids in this building, and we have great parents, but most of the kids who struggle do so because there’s no accountability at home.
“This is a typical middle school. Some kids say things that other kids take offense to. We’re working on that. We want all our kids to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Charter members of the iCare Club — eighth-graders Addie Bretl, Caitlyn Mersereau and Kaitlin Shultis — said they’re working toward that goal one act of kindness at a time.
The club, which was the idea of Michel and is in the formative stages, is planning several events including a Make a Difference Day that will encourage students to donate snacks to be distributed in the emergency room of Aurora Medical Center in Grafton.
Other events include an observance of Character Counts week and a trip to St. Ben’s Community Meal Program in Milwaukee, where students will serve dinner to people in need, club members said.
Between events, club members will work to keep their classmates focused on being kind and respectful by doing such things as handing out Kindness Coupons to students doing nice things. The coupons can be redeemed for rewards like ice cream and a place in the front of the lunch line, Michel said.
Club members will also have to lead by example. Each member is expected to log at least two good deeds before each meeting.
“Our goal is just to remind people that being nice is really easy,” Shultis said.
If achieved, that simple goal could have a significant impact on the school, Galarowicz said.
“This is a school of about 900 students and staff members,” he said. “Imagine what a wonderful place this would be if everyone would do just one kind thing a day. You’d have 900 acts of kindness.”
Image Information: CHARTER MEMBERS OF Thomas Jefferson Middle School’s iCare Club (from left) Kaitlin Shultis, Addie Bretl and Caitlyn Mersereau stood in front of a sign that read “kindness is contageous.” The poster is signed by dozens of students as a show of support for efforts to promote respect and empathy. Photo by Bill Schanen IV