By JUSTINE McGUIRE
Capital News Service
LANSING — Michigan’s anti-bullying law is only a year old, but some northern Michigan districts such as Alpena and St. Ignace have much more experience with anti-bullying policy and prevention.
Alpena Public Schools has had an anti-bullying policy for at least 15 years, said Michelle Cornish, the district’s bullying prevention coordinator and Thunder Bay Junior High assistant principal.
The program teaches students how to recognize, react to and report bullying, including cyberbullying.
“We encourage students to report all incidents of bullying so that we can establish patterns and identify who the bullies really are,” Cornish said.
Cornish said a junior high student recently reported that he had been bullied on the bus by two boys, and later that day two witnesses reported the same incident. When the sixth- and eighth-grade boys were brought to Cornish’s office and told why they were in trouble, it became clear that the eighth-grader hadn’t realized that his actions were considered bullying.
Alpena schools have trained counselors and the district’s policy is evaluated every year for fine tuning.
It also holds district-wide events, such as guest speakers.
Cornish said cyberbulling has increased sharply in recent years, so the district has adjusted its policy.
“I looked over the law, and we are well within compliance,” Cornish said.
She added that the district didn’t have to make any policy changes to comply, but the law will ensure that the needs of students around the state are met and solidifies the policy it has in place.
The 2011 law required districts to have a written anti-bullying policy in place by June 2012 and to implement it in the current school year.
The law requires statements prohibiting bullying and protecting all students, as well as procedures for reporting misconduct and for informing parents of incidents.
It also encourages schools to create community-wide prevention programs and educate members of the public.
St. Ignace Area Schools also had an anti-bullying policy prior to the 2011 law, Superintendant Donald Gustafson said. But the district adopted a revised policy in May 2012 that focuses on developing a “culture of kindness” rather than consequences for bad behavior.
“We’re teaching students to treat each other well and, hopefully, that will become contagious,” Gustafson said.
The district focuses on “kindness,” rather than niceness, which can be superficial, he said.
“It’s premature to say that the climate has changed at all,” Gustafson said. “It’s like have soup on the burner — it’s a slow process.”
It recently hosted anti-bullying speaker Jason Raitz of Live Now Leadership in Alma.
Gustafson said Raitz was well-received, and that it’s beneficial for students to hear the anti-bullying message from an outsider who can explain how such behavior is harmful.
Although Alpena, St. Ignace and other districts throughout Michigan are in compliance with the new law, the Department of Civil Rights said it’s determined to get the best programs into schools.
“Education is a very important civil right, and bullying sometimes restricts that right,” Director Daniel Krichbaum said.
Anti-bullying is one of Krichbaum’s top priorities for 2013. The department’s pilot program is scheduled to begin this year.
The department has analyzed, evaluated and tested anti-bullying programs throughout the state, something that most school districts don’t have the resources to do, he said.
As part of the program, the department will help participating districts create steering committees and set up meetings between the committees and prevention programs.
The department is calling itself a “broker” of the best programs in the state and will recommend programs for different aspects of prevention, Krichbaum said.
By JUSTINE McGUIRE