WESTERLY — Consider Ryan Holloway a watchdog.
The eighth-grader at Westerly Middle School said he will be on the lookout since hearing what he called a surprising statistic Tuesday morning about his classmates: 45 percent of the nearly 890 students who attend the school report having been bullied there.
“I thought it would be maybe 10 percent,” Holloway, 14, said. “I’m going to start looking for it, and if I see someone getting bullied, try and do something to stop it.”
Westerly Middle, home to the district’s fifth- through eighth-graders, kicked off its Olweus Bullying Prevention Program on Tuesday with a series of anti-bullying assemblies and messages and a promise that the culture of the school would be one that will not stand for bullying of any kind. The program includes a session for parents Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Y in Westerly.
“We are not unique,” Assistant Principal Michael Templeton told an auditorium full of eighth-graders after sharing the results of an anonymous survey students filled out on bullying. “But we are unique in we’re taking a stand and saying, ‘It’s not acceptable.’”
Officials have turned to the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program because of its reputation as being a school and communitywide program that works. The program, developed in Norway, is named after Dan Olweus, a psychology professor and pioneer in bullying research. A Clemson University professor, Susan P. Limber, has directed its implementation in the United States.
More than 40 teachers and staff members at the Westerly school were trained in the program. They spent two professional development days during the summer on the program, and all students will participate in most aspects of it, including attending discussions once a month and integrating the program into their advisory groups.
“Research shows that this program is the most effective because it gives students the tools and confidence to stand up against bullying,” said Debbie Pinkhover, the school counselor for seventh and eighth grades and lead teacher for guidance for the district. “It helps those bystanders stand up and do something.”
According to the survey, 95.5 percent of the students said they wanted to stop bullying but don’t know how.
While the Westerly Public Schools has procedures in place for reporting bullying and dealing with offenders — students are supposed to approach a trusted adult and describe in detail any incident they see — the Olweus program incorporates even more support for students who are bullied and stronger interventions for bullies.
“I’ve seen students get made fun of,” 13-year-old Richie Boylan, an eighth-grader, said. “But you don’t know what to do or say. It’s awkward because you’re the odd one out.”
Added Holloway: “Sometimes you don’t want to get involved because you might get bullied if you try and stop the bullying.”
About 160,000 children miss school every day because they have a fear of attack or intimidation by other students, according to the anti-bullying website makebeatsnotbeatdowns.org and the National Education Association.
According to the website, 56 percent of students across the nation have witnessed some type of bullying at school and one in seven students in grades K-12 is either a bully or a victim of bullying.
“We have to realize how severe this issue is,” Pinkhover said. “This is an initiative at the middle school, and it’s here to stay. We’re all involved.”
Students wrote editorials and participated in a slogan contest in preparation for the program kickoff, which coincided with National Bullying Prevention Month.
Students also created posters that will be displayed around the school and throughout community businesses.
“One of the reasons this program (works) is that it includes a community component,” said Susan Orban, of the Washington County Coalition for Children, which is helping fund the initiative. “This program takes a lot of effort but it empowers students to stand up and speak up.”
As part of the community portion, the Westerly Parent Academy is offering the course, “No More Bullying!” on Thursday from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., at the Ocean Community YMCA.
The one-night course will address effective intervention and prevention strategies to stop bullying and create a safe community for children.
Templeton said, “There’s also the piece where we talk to students about what makes them unique and help them to see what their strengths are. Our hope is that when students take the survey again, we’ll see a change in the numbers.”
Alex Page, an eighth-grader, said she’s going to start doing her part now.
“If you see kids being left out,” Page, 14, said. “Try and include them. Don’t make them feel alone.”