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Designees on the front line against bullying

Posted on Friday, November 1, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Spotlight on bullying

By Tiffanie Reynolds
Staff Writer
Since 2008, these resourceful adults have served as the first line of defense against bullying in schools.
They are called Designees. They can be deans, assistant principals or even guidance counselors, and every public school across Osceola County is assigned one. Their jobs, along with their daily responsibilities, are to address reports of bullying by students, parents or teachers and implement the best solution for each report.
“We try to be as proactive as we can. So, before anything gets carried away, we’re always trying to educate the students and the parents that as soon as something happens, tell an adult. Whether it’s the dean, whether it’s your teacher, anybody at school that’s an adult, tell them, and ultimately it will end up in my hands,” Maggie Cundiff, dean and designee of
Kissimmee Middle School, said.
Introduced to the schools the same year as the district’s bullying policies, designees are one part of the Stop Bullying Now campaign, which also was started in Osceola County in 2008. They are trained by District Prevention Specialist Donna Gasiorowski to not only police bullying in schools, but also help parents, teachers and students become more educated to what bullying really is.
Such education is the biggest focus for designees, as many of them see education as the greatest resource against bullying in schools. Every year, they are required to update school faculty and staff on the definition and signs of bullying as well as the best ways to report it. They also pass this information to students and parents throughout the school year, incorporating the issue of bullying into the school’s curriculum.
Cundiff, who has been a designee at Kissimmee Middle School since 2009, said that she does most of her education on bullying while addressing reports. Whenever a student or parent wants to report bullying, they fill out a written statement for the designee to follow up on that explains the situation. With every written statement, the designee interviews the student being targeted, the student doing the bullying and any other students that witnessed it, if possible. While interviewing the targeted student, she explains the district’s criteria for true bullying – repetitive, intentional and involving an imbalance of power – and more often than not, she says, many reports don’t follow those criteria, even though they are still addressed.
“Parents oftentimes think that any isolated incident of their kid getting picked on is bullying, which is not OK, and I explain that to them. Any incident is not okay. But, unless it meets certain criteria, it’s not necessarily bullying,” Cundiff said.
When a report does follow those criteria, the designee conducts an investigation. The designee goes through a required number of steps in the process, contacting the parents of the target and the alleged bully, as well as any students who have witnessed any incidents. If it is proven that one student has bullied another, then the designee punishes that student. Punishments can range from sessions with the school counselor to expulsion from school, depending on the severity of the situation.
But, many reports are single incidents or cases that couldn’t be entirely proven. Even then, the designee works with an intervention team to find the best way to prevent another incident from happening in the future. Many of these solutions involve separating the target from the bully, and parents of both students are still contacted about the situation. Usually, many incidences aren’t repeated, because even an isolated case stays on the designee’s record for that student.
Some of these isolated or unproven incidents fall into cyberbullying, which is becoming common in both middle and high schools. Cases like these are hard for the designee to investigate, as they don’t have access to social media sites on the school server and, unless the harassment is brought to campus, they don’t have the power to stop it.
At the high school level, cyberbullying is considered to be commonplace, and designees like Mike Zella, ninth grade dean of Harmony High School, have to find ways to bring prevention against it on campus. Like Cundiff, Zella’s strongest defense against it is education, and he focuses that even further to encourage students to speak out for each other.
At the high school level, Zella says that most bullying is emotional, usually through gossip or harassment online. This makes bullying cases harder to spot, not only because the bullying isn’t face-to-face, but also because few students will speak up about it for fear of getting into trouble by their peers.
To fight the silence, two “Speak Out” boxes were given to every high school in Osceola County. These boxes, placed in convenient and non-monitored places on campus, give students the certainty of anonymity if they decide to report something. Without giving their names, students can drop notes into the box about bullying they’ve seen or known about involving themselves or another student. Notes can be as vague or detailed as the student wants, but even small tips have helped Zella in conducting investigations.
“Once we’ve identified a case of bullying, a lot of our interventions with a student who exhibits bullying behavior are not disciplinary. A lot of them are getting to the bottom of what’s going on with this student, why is this student exhibiting bullying behavior. Is there something going on at home? Are they having social problems with their friends? I think that sometimes we forget that they’re still kids, and they’re still growing up,” Zella said.
Even through their investigative efforts, designees’ push on education has helped with the awareness of bullying in school. Their presentations, resources and guidance have inspired students to take the stand against bullying for themselves. Since designees have been placed in schools across Osceola County, two anti-bullying middle school groups have formed. One is Students Against Violence Everywhere (S.A.V.E.) at Neptune Middle School, and the other is Helping Everyone Respect Others (H.E.R.O.S.) that Cundiff advises at Kissimmee Middle School.
HEROS was started at the beginning of this school year by an eighth grader at Kissimmee Middle School. Working with Cundiff, they decided to focus on promoting respect on campus, and went to work immediately making flyers and posters to promote the group. There are currently five to six core group members that meet with Cundiff every Monday morning, and another 50 students that promote the club by wearing buttons and acting as respect liaisons on campus. They also hold a community project once a month to promote anti-bullying on campus.
The biggest impact that both designees have seen with bullying awareness is that more students are talking about it. That dialogue is something that both designees have never seen on school campus before, and both see this change as a first step to a bigger change against bullying on campus.
“For a long time, at least when I was in school, it was just brushed under the carpet. Like, ‘That doesn’t happen in our school.’ So, I think just having the conversation and having the dialogue is important, because it makes kids aware of it,“ Cundiff said.
If a parent believes there child is being bullied they can call his or her school and ask to speak to a designee.