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In efforts against bullying, some school districts stand out

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Olivia Craig, 7, right, on the Buddy Bench near the playground area at the Thomas W. Hamilton School in Weymouth. Children can sit on the bench when they feel left out and want a friend to play with.The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Every day at Weymouth's Hamilton Primary School, the principal reaches into a bin filled with paw-shaped slips of paper -- each given to a student who has done something kind or courteous that week -- and recognizes the person and action during the morning announcements.

In Brockton, middle and high school students are taught to "text a tip" to report nasty behavior.

Students in the anti-bullying program at the Holten Richmond Middle School designed this bench, which sits on the second floor.The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Students at Holten Richmond Middle School in Danvers each choose an adult there to contact if they are either being bullied or witness bullying -- and the adult writes a thank you note back and promises to be helpful.


And Newton is using a five-year, $2 million federal grant to make its schools safer and more accepting -- creating an entire department for "social and emotional learning."

"We're teaching habits of kindness and helpfulness, trying to spread the message that treating people meanly is not acceptable," said Amy Kelly, a former principal who heads the effort for Newton Public Schools.

Massachusetts requires public schools to have an anti-bullying plan -- the result of a 2010 law passed in reaction to the suicides of two students who reportedly had been victims of bullying.

How well the law has worked isn't clear yet. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education only has data from the 2012-2013 through 2014-2015 school years -- and only on the number of students who were disciplined for bullying at the suspension or expulsion level, according to department spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis.

But some school districts stand out, according to experts, who point to places like Newton, Danvers, Weymouth, Brockton, Reading, and Waltham that have taken on bullying in effective ways.

"We have a new term we're using in bullying prevention: pretenders and contenders," said Robin D'Antona, who's been involved in the field for about 20 years.


"A lot of people give it lip service and meet the requirements of the law by having teachers look at a 25-point PowerPoint at their leisure, sign off, and that's it," she said. "The contenders are the people who really deal with it systemically, and set a tone that doesn't allow [bullying] behavior."

George Sugai, co-director of the National Center of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and a professor at the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education, said research shows that "if classrooms and schools are positive, safe, and caring, [the] likelihood of bullying decreases."

Building that environment requires building a consensus in an entire school community about what behavior is acceptable, he said. From there, students and staff need to learn specific strategies on how to react to such things as teasing or cyber attacks, he said.

Teachers, for example, should be visible as much as possible outside the classroom, especially on playgrounds and cafeterias "so kids know they are being monitored," he said. And the response to problems should be geared to the emotional abilities of the children and severity of the offenses, he said.

The process takes time and constant attention, Sugai said. "We've found that professional development -- one-day or one-hour things -- isn't very effective," he added.

And some question the validity of most anti-bullying efforts.

Nan Stein, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, said the problem is that there isn't a uniform definition of what constitutes bullying or clear agreement on how to measure it.


"It's a very fluid landscape," Stein said. "And costly. Some of these interventions insist on [schools] hiring their trainers for thousands of dollars, and using them beyond the time of training."

Jeremy Burm, principal of Hamilton Primary School in Weymouth, which has 430 students in kindergarten through fourth grade, said he happily uses Sugai's program, as well as other character-building techniques.

Hamilton Primary School principal Jeremy Burm holds a “paws bin” as he talks to third-grader Ava Canwell about the “paw slip” she submitted.The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

The school also has a "buddy bench" in the playground where students go when they have nobody to play with or are feeling sad -- and other students are encouraged to invite them to play.

"We try not to focus on the word bullying," Burm said. "We certainly take it head on, but we talk more about how to be a good citizen. It's really about putting explicit expectations in place for every facet of the school day -- how we're supposed to be behave in the hallway, in the class, at lunch -- and then focusing on positive behavior."

Students compete to be recognized for good behavior -- and are rewarded with everything from popsicles to shout-outs to an extra recess.

Burm said the effort seems to be working. In his first four years as principal, he said he's had to file fewer than half a dozen reports of bullying; this past school year there were none.


"Sure, we've had situations where kids aren't kind to each other, but we've been able to nip it pretty quickly," he said.

Students and teachers at Franklin Elementary School in Newton play games that encourage emotional connection and combat bullying.The Boston Globe

Newton Public Schools use the "Responsive Classroom" model, which is used in varying degrees in more than 400 schools in Massachusetts, according to Mary Beth Forton, a spokeswoman for the program.

"It's not narrowly defined as an anti-bullying program," Forton said. "It's more focused on [creating a] preventive environment through school and classroom climate."

In Newton, that translates into making "safe, joyful, and caring classrooms and school communities," said program coordinator Kelly. That involves helping students get to know each other well, appreciate their differences -- and have clear expectations of how to behave and why, as well as what happens if they don't, she said.

She added that since teachers and staff set the tone of a school, "a lot of our work is with educators, to teach them how to show warmth and positive behavior."

The result should be less bullying, she said, since "research shows bullying happens less frequently in environments where [students] feel they belong and where positive behavior is celebrated."

Kelly said her district, which has about 12,000 students, will bring in an outside evaluator to assess how the program is working, and expects it may take a while to gauge the full impact of work that has started at the elementary level.

But she's optimistic.

"It's a feeling when you walk in a school," Kelly said. "Students are smiling and greeting you, and teachers are smiling."


Students at Franklin Elementary School in Newton play games that encourage emotional connection.The Boston Globe

Johanna Seltz can be reached at