Hardly a month goes by when a story about the negative effects of childhood bullying doesn't make the news. Children are taunted, teased and physically intimidated face-to-face or through growing social media websites.
Mooseheart's children are impacted by this as well -- whether they are leaving a bullying situation before coming to live on campus, or through things students say to each other in their daily lives.
While any sort of bullying at Mooseheart is more closely monitored and can be more contained than in most places -- the reality is that things happen in the world, and Mooseheart is a part of the world.
So the students at the school decided to hold an afternoon workshop on Jan. 18 to address bullying, to raise awareness and to spread a message that such behavior is not going to be tolerated in their midst.
"It's everywhere," Mooseheart Superintendent of Education Gary Urwiler said. "If it's a private school or a public school, it doesn't matter. Overall, we're a pretty nurturing environment with a family atmosphere. But still, we need to clean up some of our loose ends and hopefully our kids will take a strong message from this."
Mooseheart's student-led and teacher-supported Public Relations Council and the adult-focused Positive Behavior Intervention Support groups spearheaded the anti-bullying program, which began at lunchtime and continued through the afternoon. Among those involved in creating the program is Dean of Students Michaela Ahrens.
"For the most part, I feel really good about the culture in our school," Ahrens said. "We have given our kids a lot of skills and instilled values to keep those issues at a minimum and I want that to continue. I wouldn't say bullying is a huge problem, but it exists. It's the age of our children, and bullying is everywhere. They don't always treat each other the best, but they do most of the time."
Ahrens said she overheard one of Mooseheart's female students discussing the workshop while it was taking place.
"I heard her say that we don't have a big problem with bullying at Mooseheart but we have a problem with joking," Ahrens said. "We want to address that, too. Just because you say something and the other person laughs doesn't mean that it's funny. I hope they learned through this that the impact of their words and actions is great."
The consequences of bullying impact everyone. Victims suffer and in extreme cases, victims have committed suicide. Bullies no longer get away with this behavior, however.
"Bullies are being charged," Ahrens said. "Not only are the consequences tragic for the victim, but there are big consequences for the bullies. It's not just 'kids will be kids' any more. We want our kids to understand that, and to also understand what an important role they have as bystanders. You have to have the courage to stand up."
One of the members of the PR Council is senior Jesse Mennis. He and his team wore black T-shirts with the word "Unified" in white on the chest. They also wore white wristbands with "Unified" printed in black.
"I've been in situations where I've seen or where I myself have been bullied," Mennis said. "I've always looked for someone to help me or someone to talk to. Maybe if we do this and our school can come together and be unified, it will cut down on bullying."
The afternoon included a number of different ways to get across an anti-bullying message. Students were encouraged to eat lunch with someone other than their usual partners. The school's drama groups put on skits in the library. There were interactive activities in the cafeteria and in the school gymnasium and there were also discussion groups.
"What we're trying to do is create more awareness," Urwiler said. "We're not exempt from this. We want to see that we're doing everything we can to spread that message at Mooseheart. If we can make kids more aware of the way in which they speak or the way in which they behave, then that's a good overall message."
In a bit of irony, Urwiler missed Mooseheart's anti-bullying afternoon while he attended a principal's workshop in Elgin where the topic was bullying.
"Rural schools, suburban schools -- everybody has the same problem," Urwiler said. "We need to spread the message of speaking encouraging words about each other. One of the things to keep in mind is that maybe the words you're speaking, to you, may be a joke. But it's all about interpretation and how the other person takes your words. We never stop to think about how our words can be misinterpreted, and they can do a lot of damage."
In recent years, the spread of Internet-based social media such as Facebook has given bullies a new forum.
"My classmates and I had a discussion about how bullies aren't just in classrooms and schools now," Mennis said. "It's over the Internet with cyberbullying. And people are losing their lives because of it."
The anti-bullying program was first discussed in mid-November and is part of some larger initiatives in the school. The Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps, which is compulsory for all Mooseheart High School students, conducted a teaching unit on bullying. The school's drama classes had already worked with some anti-bullying skits.
"We got together and gathered a bunch of songs that showed how we need to stand together," Mennis said. "We came up with a creed. (Ahrens) came up with the theme of 'unified.'"
Ahrens said she would like to expand the workshop and have it encompass a full day for high school students and a half-day for middle schoolers.