Catherine Coffrini’s classroom, crowded but cozy, erupted when a gaggle of students marched through her front door. Brenna Fairchild’s fifth grade class entered the room, faces etched with smiles, and traipsed into the waiting arms of more than a few seven-year-olds. It was time for Buddies.
Out came the papers covered with pumpkins. Out came the crayons and began the coloring. The kids raced to build their pumpkin faces, taking turns rolling dice and drawing whatever shape the numbers told them to, peals of “Baby Shark” ringing out over the cacophony of tiny voices.
“She won,” said Boston, 11. “I couldn’t get a nose in time.”
Boston and Payton, 7, have been paired up as buddies, coloring pumpkins that will soon hang in Grocery Outlet.
“I’m your BFF, right?” Payton asked Boston.
“Yep!” said Boston with a wry smile.
Boston and Payton met only a few weeks ago when their classrooms were paired up as part of the “Buddies, not Bullies” program at Bohemia Elementary School. The program is designed to help build connections across grade levels and create a stronger school community. It’s one of the ways the South Lane School District (SLSD) is trying to combat bullying.
“What we really try to promote is this idea of family and how we take care of each other at Bohemia,” said Principal Heather Bridgens.
Previous reporting by The Sentinel has shown that students in Oregon have reported being bullied at higher rates than the rest of the nation. In Lane County, the students report an even higher rate than the state average.
Buddies, not Bullies started three years ago at Bohemia, part of a new social-emotional curriculum SLSD adopted. Though that curriculum has since been updated, the buddies remain.
“The fifth graders and second graders have been in the program for three years. I’m just watching how they naturally interact with each other. They understand the buddy system,” said Fairchild. “It’s something that’s become part of their life and routine at school. Watching it kind of evolve into something that’s much more organic for kids has been really, really cool to see.”
Comparative data is hard to come by at Bohemia and across all of SLSD. In the last few years, definitions of bullying and its reporting practices have changed, making those reports more accurate.
“I’m not suggesting by any means that we wipe out bullying at Bohemia. I wish I could say that,” Bridgens said. “But I do think that we talk openly about it and we address it head on. It is not a hidden subculture. We do not sweep it under the rug. I think because we talk about it and because we have context for that verbiage, students better understand the concept of what it means to be a good friend, to be a respectful citizen--because you don’t have to be friends with everyone — and what it means to be a bully.”
The Buddies program has other effects beyond ticking down the number of bullying reports. Teachers who might not see each other outside of staff meetings get a chance to work together and build a work family not unlike the family connections the program tries to create with the students. It also seems that kids who participate have more empathy.
“I think it helps them think about how different kids act and to be accepting of that and be patient with one another,” said Fairchild. “As an older buddy, you have to be patient with the younger buddies, and I’ve seen that transfer over into how they treat each other.”
With a phone in every pocket and social media like Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter dominating the attention of nearly everyone, bullying has made a shift from in-person to the Information Superhighway. At Lincoln Middle School, they’ve tried to give kids the tools to be safe online.
School counselors Thomas Partridge and Connie Wonham began the #ICANHELP campaign at Lincoln. They brought in a speaker to help kids understand the program and how they can participate.
“If you see [bullying] on social media and you’re putting a laugh comment or liking a comment that was mean to someone then you’re part of the problem,” said Jeremy Smith, former principal of Lincoln Middle School. “Even if you don’t do that and you’re just a bystander, then that can lead to people thinking that’s an acceptable behavior.”
In just a year since the all-school assembly that brought kids together to learn about upstanding instead of bystanding, a common language and techniques to deal with their bullies, Smith feels like he’s seen cases of cyberbullying drop--even if he didn’t at the time of writing have hard data to support that.
Beyond the insults hurled behind a screen, though, Smith says the program has had a positive effect on students:
“The fact that [the kids] saw a system and a way to respond, we saw students that before we [had] expected to be timid and be a victim, we saw more of those kids standing up for themselves and maybe demanding the respect they maybe wouldn’t have at other times,” said Smith.
It’s no secret that kids bully each other in school. Tracking those incidents in SLSD has been a little harder. In the past, the district had multiple referral forms for student misconduct and used different computer-based tracking systems to bring data together. This year, the district is making changes.
They’ve started using a single referral form and the same definitions at every school in the district. That will help track incidents, according to Brian McCasline, the interim assistant superintendent of SLSD. The district is also updating its data system to make it easier for administrators to make sense of the discipline data across every school, including bullying incidents.
“For example, on the referral form it might say ‘defiant and disruptive behavior.’ If some [forms] have that and some have something different, it’s really hard to compare [data] across the district. Now everyone has the same categories of behavior so that will make it a lot easier to use,” said McCasline.
One of the new systems the district has adopted is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). PBIS is a U.S. government-funded education program that helps educators and administrators be more effective in sniffing out bad behaviors and dealing with them before they escalate into something worse.
McCasline said that SLSD is adopting PBIS district-wide this school year, but pieces of it have been used in the district for several years. PBIS helps give more detailed data than ever before to principals and the district office, which can help them figure out where they need to shore up their efforts to make sure the kids are safe.
“What PBIS allows you to do is pinpoint where, when and how things are happening, so that you can prevent many of those situations,” McCasline said. “You can pinpoint between 12:00 and 12:15 we’re having an issue in the cafeteria with horseplay. Or we’re having an issue with bullying-type behavior from 12:30 to 12:45 on the playground. Then you can really put things in place to stop that behavior from happening.”
All of this information helps the district make sure they’re teaching students acceptable behaviors and shift supervision when needed — all in an effort to make sure kids are safe and don’t become repeat offenders.
Payton grabbed Boston’s now-finished pumpkin drawing and swapped it with her own. Boston gently took it back, and a playful game of keep-away began. In the moment, the girls could have been sisters.
In that moment, they were.