Students helping, not hurting

Published 10:03 pm Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Suffolk Sheriff’s Deputies Troy Babb and Morgan Olson brought three planks of wood to Elephant’s Fork Elementary School to make a point. As more than 70 fourth-graders sat in the school auditorium, Babb explained how the lumber represented the bullying harms that linger on.

The clean plank represented a child who had never been bullied, while another was riddled with nails to show how much a mean comment or moment of violence can penetrate someone.

“If you pick on somebody day after day, week after week, month after month, that’s what you’re going to look like,” Babb said, pointing at the embedded nails as children reacted to the demonstration.

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You could apologize a month later, but saying you’re sorry doesn’t take away the painful memories of what you said or did, he said.

“The damage is already done, you picked on them and picked on them, even though you say you’re sorry, it doesn’t fix it,” he said he held up another piece of wood with the nails removed, which left deep holes in the plank. “You can paint it, you can stain it, you can try to make it pretty, but it’s still up here in her head.”

The deputies met with roughly 500 children at Elephant’s Fork Elementary School on Wednesday for Unity Day, the signature event of October’s recognition as National Bullying Prevention Month, a nationwide campaign founded in 2006 by the National Bullying Prevention Center of Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights, or PACER.

Suffolk Public Schools participated in Unity Day by wearing orange and holding campaigns, classroom discussion by guidance counselors and building on the theme of “Together Against Bullying: United for Kindness, Acceptance and Inclusion,” according to the press release.

“Orange provides a powerful, visually compelling expression of solidarity,” Paula Goldberg, executive director of the PACER Center, states on “Whether it’s hundreds of individuals at a school wearing orange, store owners offering orange products, or a community changing a landmark to orange, the vibrant statement becomes a conversation starter, sending the supportive, universal message that bullying is never acceptable behavior.”

PACER defines bullying as intentional behavior that hurts, harms or humiliates someone either physically or emotionally. Anyone can engage in this behavior in any setting, whether it’s at home, school, work or elsewhere.

It’s not just the aggressor doing harm either, as Babb explained to the children that doing nothing when they witness bullying or even laughing at the victim make them just as culpable.

“Life is about choices. Positive choices,” Babb said. “Start thinking about that now, because the grades you make in school now will carry over to the next school you go to.”

Those “grades” include how you treat your classmates, and the stakes of the situation are significant. Statistics show that upwards of 13 million students reported being bullied annually, and 160,000 children miss school each day because of it, according to the press release.

It’s not just absenteeism. It’s also mental and physical stress, poor self-esteem and in-class performance and, in the worst cases, violence and suicide.

“I want my students to feel safe and if they’re being bullied, they’re not going to feel safe,” Elephant’s Fork Elementary School Principal Jessica Avery said. “That’s my No. 1 priority and everything else follows behind that.”

Suffolk Public Schools have been on the case throughout October to prevent bullying. They’ve highlighted Buddy Benches at different schools, where students who are lonely or upset can sit to let other students know that they need a buddy to cheer them up.

Students and staff at Hillpoint Elementary have been creating a “rainbow of positive messages” using colorful sticky notes, according to the press release, and other at Nansemond Parkway Elementary pledged to prevent bullying by writing their names on orange links to create a “unity chain.”

Elephant’s Fork Elementary recited its pledge to prevent bullying during Wednesday morning announcements. Students later signed their names on orange paper hands to represent their shared commitment to lend a “helping hand” for those in need.

Guidance Counselor Latoya McGlone said she saw a great response from the students throughout the Wednesday sessions.

“They’re definitely receptive, more aware and more willing to be a helper and not a hurter,” McGlone said.

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