ATWATER -- Bullying is being targeted this year in Atwater schools through the Second Step program. The efforts are expected to reduce conflicts, improve student behavior and ultimately bolster achievement.
Atwater Elementary School District Superintendent Melinda Hennes is serious about making inroads against bullying.
"Everyone's a victim when there is bullying activity," Hennes said. "Those who observe bullying have feelings of guilt and remorse because they didn't intervene. When students are preoccupied with negative emotions, they are less able to focus on academics."
Battling bullying is a major task for the district's school resource officer, Evan Pitney.
The 42-year-old, who has been with the Atwater Police Department for eight years, hopes to head off bullying before it begins or escalates into something more serious.
Pitney said he is trying to create a peaceful, safe environment where students can go to learn.
"I still believe early intervention works," Pitney said. He sees his role as much more of a counselor and mentor as opposed to someone making arrests, which regular police officers on a beat do routinely.
Jennifer Handy, Bellevue School principal, said the Second Step anti-bullying program starts the beginning of each Monday on her campus. Teachers use antibullying lessons and students engage in conversations designed to improve their social skills.
"We have noticed a more positive culture on campus, and we try to focus on celebrating social student achievements by doing 'shout-outs' to recognize them," Handy said. "Teachers have voiced that they really enjoy the opportunity to engage in these types of conversations with their students as well."
Michele McCabe, the district's assistant superintendent for educational services, said Second Step is classified as a universal intervention, meaning that it is appropriate for all students and not just those at risk.
"The curriculum aims to reduce impulsive and aggressive behaviors and increase protective factors and social-emotional competence," McCabe said. "The middle school curriculum also includes lessons that focus on bullying prevention and substance-abuse prevention."
Students who participate in social-emotional learning programs have grade-point averages that are 11 percent higher than their peers, score higher on standardized tests and are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as violence, and drug and alcohol use, McCabe said.
Chan Meas, assistant principal at Mitchell Senior Elementary School, said Second Step has been well-received by the student body. The emphasis is on positive relationships.
"I'm so glad we have this program," Meas said. "When students feel comfortable, achievement will go up. This allows us to talk about social issues. Students today clearly have new pressures due to technology."
Pitney said that given all the jobs he's had, from patrol to investigations, his 18-year career working as a school resource officer has been extremely rewarding.
"You get to intervene before it gets to the point of making bad choices," Pitney said. "I like elementary schools; they (students) are still developing and you can have an impact on the choices they are making. You can see the positive impact of what you do."
Hennes said it's not just students who bully others; it can involve adults, too. She said all school personnel need to be mindful of their behavior. She said antibullying efforts have been a priority of district trustees.
McCabe puts Second Step in perspective.
"We know that we need to focus on more than just teaching reading, writing and arithmetic," McCabe said. "We need to address the needs of the whole child. This work is just part of trying to develop the whole child."
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or email@example.com.