Ending bullying in Highlands Ranch
Written by Chris Silberman
HIGHLANDS RANCH—160,000 students nationwide skip school every day for fear of being bullied. This is a statistic from the National Center for School Engagement, which is posted on the Rachel’s Challenge website.
Over the past five weeks, I’ve experienced and shared a lot of student and teacher successes as part of the One District, One Community tour series. Last week, I spoke with two students at Coyote Creek Elementary, Gwen and Jazzy, who told me about how they were bullied in the past. Through the school giving students a voice in everything they do—from how their day looks to the assignments on which they are working—they built an assignment that would help others who are experiencing bullying just as they have. As an outcome, their teacher told me about the exponential boost in confidence they exhibited as a result of working on their project.
Gwen and Jazzy inspired me this week to explore anti-bullying programs and restorative strategies as I visited schools in District A, the western side of Highlands Ranch.
Cougar Run Elementary School Principal, John Gutierrez and Administrative Dean, Amy Moyle, immerse the school’s students in an atmosphere that is positively reinforcing and in which every student is an active participant to spread kindness to one another. Students are also armed with the ability to be able to deal with issues they encounter head on.
Last year, they brought in Rachel’s Challenge, a locally based program that grew out of the Columbine High School tragedy, which inspires kids to create a chain reaction of kindness and compassion. Through videos, classroom lessons and activities, plus constant reinforcement of paying forward acts of kindness, students are more aware of how their peers are doing.
“When we watch the videos, I think it really opens our eyes and makes us more aware of how we can change things or bring things up,” said Ella, a fifth grader at Cougar Run. “It has had a really good effect on us.”
“If somebody is having a bad day, I’ve seen way more people ask them what’s wrong, and ‘you know you can tell me because I’m always here for you,’” another fifth grader, Dani, said to me.
“I feel like there are definitely fewer bullies,” said fifth-grader, Titan. “People have stopped doing things like that.”
As one part of Rachel’s Challenge, students wrote acts or thoughts of kindness to other students on strips of paper and connected them into a chain link with a length that circled the school’s field. They additionally released butterflies as a symbolic representation of the transformation of the Cougar Run culture and climate.
“The butterfly represents a change, so each classroom had a butterfly habitat and had the opportunity to see those butterflies hatch and emerge,” said Moyle. That was representing the change in our culture to one of more kindness and compassion.”
To reinforce the lessons of Rachel’s Challenge, Cougar Run proactively recognizes students for demonstrating the school’s core values, which is known as Cougar Run ROCKS.
“We talk about ROCKS on an ongoing basis, we acknowledge kids when they are doing an exceptionally good job at that,” Gutierrez said. “Our recognition is a tiered approach and our goal is that every child gets recognized in some way.”
Cougar Run ROCKS
Cougar Run, like many DCSD schools, has core values that emphasize student respectfulness, responsibility and compassion towards one another. Cougar Run ROCKS stands for:
R: Students are expected to be respectful and responsible in all that they do and say. They are in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.
O: The Power of One highlights the idea that each student has the ability to make a difference and that one person can positively impact others with their words and actions.
C: Students demonstrate compassion to one another and are thoughtful about what they do and say. They are encouraged to think about others’ perspectives and show empathy.
K: Students are encouraged to show daily acts of kindness to their classmates. Acts of kindness are recognized and celebrated.
S: Students’ emotional and physical safety is our first priority at Cougar Run. We have a multitude of security measures in place to ensure our students feel safe coming to school each and every day.
Both informal and formal recognition opportunities for students exemplifying the ROCKS values are embedded into the school culture, so that students are recognized on a daily and biweekly basis and then formally once per semester in a full school assembly.
On the classroom level, teachers are guiding kids to take ownership of the lessons learned from Rachel’s Challenge and the ROCKS core values through restorative circles.
These circles can be a ritual or happen spontaneously, they can be a full class circle, or a smaller circle if there’s an issue affecting a small number of students. There is always a full class understanding, though, that everyone has a voice in the discussion.
“If kids are expressing concerns about something going on, that’s a perfect, really authentic opportunity for the class to sit down and have a discussion,” said Cougar Run second grade teacher, Sarah Dimino. “It’s such a part of our everyday thing, it’s quick and gives us an easy way to have conversations.”
This lays the foundation for the younger kids in the building. By the time students reach fifth grade, though, things like bullying start to become more prevalent and hurtful.
For fifth grade Cougar Run teacher, Lauren Lupien, she guides her students to take ownership of the classroom from the start of the school year, establishing the environment and setting up expectations.
“I always start the year asking ‘what do we want our classroom to look like? How do we want to interact with each other? What kind of norms do we want to follow?’ I think that gives them ownership when they create that environment,” Lupien said.
Lupien uses restorative circles quite a bit as a check-in to see how their community is doing and to allow a chance for all kids to be heard.
“When you say ‘we have a problem’ and kids just raise their hands, there’s always kids that aren’t heard. A circle really allows a chance for everyone. You don’t have to speak right this second, you can pass and think about it, but every voice needs to be heard and involved.”
Dimino, Lupien and Principal Gutierrez say these practices are working.
“I see kids owning their behavior a little bit more,” Lupien said. “Even if it’s a smaller circle between students where there’s been a problem, ‘I’m sorry’ isn’t just the response anymore. I feel like that’s what I used to get. Now the way you involve kids is ‘what are you going to do to make that right?’”
“I also see kids just trying to be nicer to each other, and help prevent things from happening in the future,” she added.
“I think a big outcome is kids know how to communicate a little bit more. They’re learning how to socialize, and they are running into problems because those are real world problems and those will never go away. But we’re giving them the right tools to figure out how to sort things out. They know the right questions to ask and the right consequences for their actions.”
“Our kids are more seasoned on how to problem solve. I think we get to resolution more quickly now,” Gutierrez said. “The kids are really involved in that problem-solving piece and they come up with some great solutions.”
Nearby Cougar Run, I visited Sand Creek Elementary School. The timing was perfect, as the school just received word that they received the No Place For Hate designation from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). They are the only school in Douglas County to receive this designation and one of just 55 schools in Colorado.
No Place for Hate partners with schools through a year-long initiative, working to embed a culture of inclusion and respect. In preparation for this accreditation, the school implemented best practice strategies to teach students to be inclusive with one another, not judge others and to speak up if you see an issue rather than be a “bystander”—an important component of No Place For Hate that explains no person can be innocent or uninvolved when opposing hate or bullying.
“The big thing is we want everybody in our school to know if you are faced with a situation we don’t want you standing there cheering them on,” explained Chi Kowalchuk, Sand Creek’s School Psychologist. “We don’t want you standing there laughing and we don’t want you going to your friends and talking about it later. All of that is not helping, you are just spreading it and being a bystander while that person is still getting hurt. So we want all of our kids to know exactly what to do in that situation.”
Additionally, in order to gain the ADL designation, school personnel needed to identify, train and establish a student leadership team that could carry the No Place For Hate message throughout the school. 20 students were nominated by their teachers from last year.
“We emailed the teachers in the beginning of this year and asked, ‘who showed you integrity, leadership, citizenship and empathy?’ That became our leadership team for this year,” said Kowalchuk.
The team comprises students from first grade through sixth grade. They led an assembly in which all students made a verbal pledge to be kind to everyone and report on any incidents they see, they lead activities and fundraisers in the school and they even led a training for 80 additional students on the No Place For Hate program values.
“Our goal is to keep doing this, get it to spread and get kids to learn about it even more,” Kowalchuk said.
Important to Kowalchuk and Sand Creek’s Principal, Phil Ranford, is that the culture, climate and learning coming from the No Place For Hate program is sustained.
“Everything that we do isn’t just a one-time hit,” Ranford said. Part of maintaining the accreditation that we earned is to continue with this project and add to it, so we’ll be constantly building this culture throughout the school.”
Ranford introduced Sand Creek to the ADL’s No Place for Hate program. Prior to becoming Principal at Sand Creek last year, he helped implement the program at a school in Texas.
Even though the program is still very new to Sand Creek, they are already seeing results in the students, including in the older fifth and sixth grade students, which is when you start to notice social challenges and bullying occur. Ranford noted that in the past, students weren’t doing much to reach out to other students who were being teased or bullied, but he’s seeing that begin to change now.
“Three of our friends at recess identified that one of our friends has some social issues, and they took it upon themselves to purposely go out and befriend him, work with him and address some of the behaviors that they’ve seen some others exhibiting,” Ranford said. “They brought it to the teacher’s attention, they’ve talked to him and they purposely made sure they were playing near him to ensure that wasn’t happening. So they’ve really taken an active role in that.”
Ownership is key for Ranford and Kowalchuk. They are beginning to see the kids actually controlling issues that come up. They keep teachers in the loop, but then let them know that a particular situation is under control.
“I think that the catalyst for what brought all of this together from just being a program we do in the classroom has been bringing in the No Place For Hate framework and giving them something to work towards,” Ranford said. Some of these things we were doing naturally but until we started providing meaning and value to it, the kids weren’t really buying into it. Once we started putting value to things we started seeing things really turn around.”
Ranford and Kowalchuk have also both noticed a change in how Leadership Team kids carry themselves, because they know their peers are looking to them to set an example.
Parents are noticing the change too.
“A mother stopped me outside,” Kowalchuk said. “She said ‘my daughter is in the training and she has not stopped talking about it since the previous one,’ which was two weeks ago. Then she said, ‘I’m a counselor in another district, would you mind if I came and just watched?’ So it is getting out there!”
Chris Silberman joined the DCSD Communications team in September 2015. He grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and moved to Colorado in 1999. He is a graduate of the University of Colorado at Denver and served as Executive Director of a local music education nonprofit, as well as a local disability nonprofit prior to joining DCSD.