Proactive principals, sense of belonging limit bullying at FHS

Proactive principals, sense of belonging limit bullying at FHS

As students walk down the halls of their school, they aren’t likely to see a Bart Simpson-like scene in which kids are shaking down others for their lunch money or giving each other swirlies in the nearest bathroom. But bullying sometimes hides under the surface for teenagers, and what seems like teasing to one person may feel like bullying to the victim.

Fairmont psychologist Karen Johnson agrees that bullying can be difficult to define. “Bullying involves harassment toward a student,” she said. “It occurs when a student is criticized for things they believe in, for who they are, for things that are beyond their control, and for things that the other person perceives are different and unacceptable.”

The subject of bullying among teens gained a lot of media attention this fall following the bullying-related suicides of five boys between the ages of 13 and 19 in various parts of the country. In at least one of those cases, a relatively new form of bullying called cyberbullying was a factor. Cyberbullying involves the use of social networking sites and cell phones to harass another person.

Fairmont Guidance Counselor Lois Isaacs said cyberbullying is a dangerous reality. “Cyberbullying is harder to supervise because it happens at home, but the trickle-down effect is when they come to school and have to deal with the person there,” she said.

Johnson agrees that bullies are taking advantage of the Internet and other technologies that are out of the control of school authorities. “In today’s culture, when a student is bullied, it’s hard for them to get away from it,” she said. “You have social media where kids can bully and you have text messaging. It’s just very hard to control bullying.”

A ‘no-nonsense’ approach

Fairmont has more than 2,400 students with different backgrounds, races, religions, economic situations and other differences, yet students and faculty members interviewed agree that, for the most part, Fairmont students get along and bullying is minimal.

Fairmont sophomore Alicia Heiligenberg says she’s known students who have been bullied, but added, “I think we have less bullying than other schools because most people do get along here, and not many people get bullied.”

Donna Aker, another Fairmont sophomore who admits she’s experienced bullying from both the perspective of the bully and the bullied, also doesn’t think Fairmont has a big problem. “Fairmont has no more bullying than other schools. You constantly see other schools with bullying issues in the news, showing that we’re not the only ones going through this,” she said.

If students do have issues with bullying, they can go to one of the eight guidance counselors or five principals that Fairmont has to help students resolve issues.

Isaacs feels the principals play a huge role in the peaceful environment at Fairmont. “We have a very diverse group of students here. It’s amazing how relatively well everyone gets along. My personal opinion is that we have a very strong administration that is very no-nonsense with bullies,” she said.

Guidance Counselor Larry Lamb agrees. He said he believes the administration keeps everyone under control and reduces bullying cases. “Can we put a stop to bullying? Well, we’re not Superman, but we do the best we can,” he said.

Fairmont Principal Dan VonHandorf says there’s no hard data to compare the amount of bullying at Fairmont to that of other high schools. “But I can’t imagine a school being more proactive in handling bullying,” he said. “We leave no stone unturned when it comes to bullying allegations. In my gut, I think we do a better job than most area schools.”

Student groups work toward peace

In addition to the administration, other factors at Fairmont may contribute to keeping the peace in the halls.

After a four-year break, the club called Growing Peace returned this school year. VonHandorf and Activities Director Jenny Borchers attended the National Conference for Community and Justice, where they learned objectives that the Fairmont club has adopted. VonHandorf explained the main idea behind the conference and the club. “We may look different, we may act different,” he said. “But really when it comes down to it, people are people and we have a lot more in common than many think.”       

Growing Peace Adviser Jessica Kelly said the club isn’t strictly focused on bullying issues. “Our goal isn’t necessarily related to stopping bullying because I don’t think it’s something we can do,” she said. “But we can promote the opposite, which is being a good person. When I hear about people struggling with depression, I think about how important it is to be nice to other people, because you don’t know what they’re going through.”

Kelly said more than 50 students had joined Growing Peace by late October, and the number is growing. The club has also created a Facebook page for students who want to be involved in the club but don’t have time to attend meetings. “They can get on there and express how they feel and be supportive of one another,” said Kelly.

Peer Mediation also may help students work through problems. Peer Mediation offers a setting in which Fairmont students mediate as other students confront each other about issues they have, whether it be as important as bullying or as simple as teen drama. “We don’t solve problems,” said Peer Mediator Amy Hartmann. “We’re just there to make sure there’s no trouble and help students communicate so they can solve their own problems.”

Some students believe this helps situations, while others do not. “Mediation doesn’t help because people just blow it off and act like it’s a joke,” Aker said. “Then they take it outside of school.”

Heiligenberg sees it differently, however. “I think Peer Mediation helps a lot because they tell you what you need to look out for and to just ignore rude comments,” she said.

Peer Mediator Kayleigh White thinks the success of mediation depends on the students’ willingness to work things out. “I think mediation can help students if they are open-minded about it,” she said.

VonHandorf believes many factors contribute to a peaceful environment at Fairmont. In addition to clubs and mediation, he said he feels Fairmont’s advisory system gives students a sense of belonging. He also encourages teens to get involved in any club or activity that gives them a connection to the school. With these connections, he believes the school can become a safer environment for students.

The importance of awareness

Several Fairmont administrators and staff members said the best way to prevent bullying is for people to look out for each other and be willing to act if something doesn’t seem quite right.

English teacher Kristen Allen said she’s noticed that students are becoming more aware and standing up for other students being harassed in the hallways. “We need to hold on to this feeling and try to impact change here at Fairmont,” she said.

VonHandorf said he wants every student at Fairmont to feel safe. “If kids are being bullied or harassed anywhere, the first step is to report it to an adult so we can start to help them,” he said.

Johnson gives a final piece of advice to students worried about bullying. “If you’re concerned about what’s going on, then be proactive. Be the student who joins a group like Growing Peace. Be the student who goes to a counselor when they see or hear about bullying. But, most of all, be the student who stands up for someone they don’t know who is getting harassed in the hallways because it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

EDITORS’ NOTE:  The Flyer had already decided to do a story on the topic of bullying before Fairmont experienced the suicide of sophomore Megan Fickert on Oct. 13. Upon learning of the suicide, the Fairmont administration promptly investigated the circumstances. Principal Dan VonHandorf said there is no evidence to show that bullying was a factor in Megan’s death. “We talked to a bunch of students and worked with the police department and Megan’s family,” he said. “We’ve come to the conclusion that bullying was not a factor in her suicide in any way.”

ALSO SEE:  Fairmont praised for how it responded to suicide.