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Boston students collaborate on bullying issues

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Students are patted down before taking part in the Boston schools’ antibullying program.

It’s 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, and Avery Coke is not happy. The seventh-grader would much rather be home in bed than participating in a bullying prevention and intervention program.

It’s the middle-schooler’s first day there and he sits alone in the back of a classroom at the Counseling and Intervention Center in Roslindale, his head resting in his hands. He grimaces as the group - including bullies, those who have been bullied, and bystanders - discusses how to be assertive if someone is picking on you.

WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF

Boston Latin eighth-grader Judy Ayala and Wendell Sumerlin, a fourth-grader from Brighton, at an antibullying workshop.

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Everyone here has been involved in a bullying incident, but only staff members know who was an aggressor, a victim, or a witness.

“It’s irrelevant,’’ said Jodie Elgee, director of Saturdays for Success, a new Boston public schools initiative. “We’re addressing all the kids in the same way.’’

The Saturdays for Success program is part of a larger effort by the schools to ensure compliance with the state’s 2010 bullying and prevention law, which requires schools and teachers to identify, report, and prevent bullying.

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The eight-week, four-hour bullying prevention program started in October and was developed in partnership with the Education Development Center, a Waltham-based nonprofit. Behavior specialists and high school students, serving as peer leaders, teach social and emotional skills to young people involved in all aspects of bullying.

Bullying, Elgee said, is about power: Bullies have too much; victims don’t have enough; and bystanders don’t use the power they have.

‘I don’t want anybody else to feel the way I felt. It scares me how young people start bullying others.’

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“What we’re looking at is trying to level the . . . playing field,’’ Elgee said.

A trip through a metal detector, followed by a jacket search and pat-down at the start of the day, helps neutralize any imbalance of power for students who walk through the door, she said, while ensuring that they feel safe.

Thirty-five students from third through eighth grade have participated in the program. Seven high school students, known as peer leaders, have helped facilitate discussions and participate in skits. No student who participates can have been involved in a violent bullying incident.

“We all learn from our mistakes,’’ said peer leader Kiah Gethers, a 15-year-old sophomore, during an earlier interview at Charlestown High, where she was suspended in November for carrying a switchblade. Gethers has to wait for her school bus before dawn, she said, and she was afraid.

The teen carried out her suspension at the center, where she learned to carry a whistle instead of a weapon.

“They told me I did so well that they wanted me to become a peer leader,’’ she said.

Gethers, an A and B student who said her English grade suffered because of the suspension, said she used to be picked on by others for being smart and not wearing trendy clothes.

The Saturday program creates a safe space for students to discuss issues - foster care, sexual abuse, gangs, and sexuality - that might influence a bully to pick on others or affect how a victim reacts. The classroom is filled with signs reminding them to think before they act and respect one another. Positive affirmations are spelled out in red letters all over the wall: Persist. Think. Hope. Feel.

Coke, who attends Young Achievers Science and Math K-8 in Mattapan, sulks in front of posters, some bearing photos of people expressing the emotion - happy, sad, frustrated - written above their head, another emblazoned with the Statue of Liberty and a message about justice for all.

BRIAN FEULNER FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Kiah Gethers, a 15-year-old sophomore at Charlestown High, is a peer leader for Saturdays for Success. The program creates a safe space for students to discuss issues tied to bullying.

Peer leader Daniella Toussaint notices Coke’s dark mood and quietly sits next to him, a subtle gesture of inclusion. Minutes later, he hesitantly joins the conversation, responding to a question about personal space, crowded buses, and feelings of anxiety.

“If the bus is packed, I won’t even get on it,’’ he says, sparking a lively debate in which many students agree they would rather walk or wait than squeeze onto a bus.

Coke later explained that he was here “because I was aggravating someone until they got to the point they went to tell.’’

The jury is still out, he said, on whether he will learn anything useful in these Saturday sessions.

“This,’’ he said, “is my first of eight. We’ll see.’’

But Toussaint, a senior at Brighton High School, has seen such reticence morph into enthusiasm.

The 19-year-old, who had been a victim of bullying much of her life, became a peer leader after being suspended for bringing a box cutter to school. She hadn’t intended to use the tool as a weapon, she said; it was inadvertently left in her bag after a weekend of packing and unpacking boxes.

Toussaint said she wants to help others now.

“I don’t want anybody else to feel the way I felt,’’ she said. “It scares me how young people start bullying others.’’

In elementary school, Toussaint said, she was teased for being a Haitian immigrant who spoke little English and kept to herself. In middle school, she said, girls picked fights with her because they didn’t like her sister. And at her first high school, she was outed as a lesbian and ostracized, she said. At one point, she skipped class and hid in a bathroom stall to avoid being tormented.

But she didn’t escape the feelings of shame and embarrassment.

“Some of the girls walked in, and they were like they didn’t want to be around me because they were afraid I would try something,’’ she said. “The one who was talking about me being gay was a girl I helped with homework after school. It wasn’t something I was ready to come out with yet. I was only 15.’’

In this room, there are many stories: stories of standing up for yourself, of still being picked on, of hallway drama - and of success.

Wendell Sumerlin, a fourth-grader at Winship Elementary in Brighton, is a student whose behavior at home and at school was transformed after eight weeks of Saturday school, Elgee said.

Sumerlin learned that, although each person is unique, people often have more similarities than differences.

“I’ve changed a lot,’’ the 10-year-old admitted. “Instead of fighting, I talk. Instead of teasing, I go to the teacher. I pay attention to my work, instead of other people. I used to follow other people. Now, I try to be a leader.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com.
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