Fridley middle schoolers take on district's bullying policy

Talking with students
Deandre Fowler, 14, talks with fourth-grade students at Hayes Elementary School in Fridley, Minn. Tuesday, May 29, 2012. Fowler is a member of the "Bully Bosses," a Fridley Middle School group that teaches students about the effects of and tactics to deal with bullying.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

A group of students at Fridley Middle School has taken on bullying in a big way. They've created an anti-bullying program, and even more importantly, they've put a new spin on their school's bullying policy.

They have a unique understanding of bullying because they're in the school's special education program.

On a recent day, four of the students visited a fourth-grade classroom wearing t-shirts that proclaim them "The Bully Bosses." They're here to help next year's middle school students learn what to watch out for.

These students deliver their message at Hayes Elementary in classic early teen style -- a little shy and a bit mumbly. But they capture the attention of the classroom. They talk with the younger students individually as well, asking them what they would do if they were bullied.

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"Go grab a teacher," one fourth-grader said. "If you can't stand up for yourself, just go get the teacher."

Bullying worksheet
Fourth-grader Zoey Tucker works on a bullying worksheet during a presentation at Hayes Elementary School in Fridley, Minn. Tuesday, May 29, 2012. Fridley Middle School students presented an anti-bullying campaign to the Hayes fourth-graders.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"That's a good one, I like that idea," a Bully Boss responded.

The Bully Bosses' main message to the younger students is "don't put up with bullying when you start middle school next year. Stand up for yourself and your friends."

The Bully Bosses' effort got its start at Fridley Middle School in the Project Star classroom. The class is for students with behavioral problems who struggle academically. They also have problems with speech and language skills, and some have attention deficit disorder.

They've faced their share of bullying from other students, and they admit to dishing it out as well.

Eighth grader Deandre Fowler said he was bullied a few years ago because he was homeless. He said he dealt with the bullying by becoming a bully himself.

"I bullied because it let out my anger. I had all that anger stuck in from all of them calling me names," he said. "Bullying is getting power out of the person. You're overruling him, you're taking charge of him."

Bullying presentation
"Bully Bosses" members Deandre Fowler, 14, right, and Cathy Martinson, 11, give a presentation to fourth-grade students at Hayes Elementary School in Fridley, Minn. Tuesday, May 29, 2012. The "Bully Bosses" are Fridley Middle School students who have developed an anti-bullying campaign and have helped rewrite the school's bullying policy.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Fowler and other special education students at Fridley Middle School are part of the Public Achievement program, a cooperative effort between the school and Augsburg College in Minneapolis, whose goal is to encourage students to take on a project that creates lasting change.

So these students took on their school district's bullying policy.

"It was so hard to sound out the words and actually read it," said Cathy Martinson, a fifth grader. "We're still in middle school, and they're words that all these lawyers and stuff would use."

Martinson is one of the Bully Bosses who thought the policy needed a rewrite. It reads:

"Bullying means any written or verbal expression, physical act or gesture or pattern thereof by a student that is intended to cause or is perceived as causing distress to one or more students or which substantially interferes with another student or students."

After months of work, the Bully Bosses had a more kid-friendly document.

"Bullying can include hurting someone, messing up someone's stuff, making a student afraid, making a school a scary place."

"The one we wrote is more easier and stuff," said Martinson. "And it's easier for me to read."

Listening to students
Alissa Blood, a teacher at Fridley Middle School, listens as her students give an anti-bullying presentation at Hayes Elementary School in Fridley, Minn. Tuesday, May 29, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The Bully Bosses wanted their version to be adopted as the school district's official policy, but they found out recently that's not going to happen.

The problem is that the district needs a policy that uses legal language, for legal purposes.

Cathy Martinson said the Bully Bosses are not upset about how things turned out, especially after they met recently with the middle school's principal Margaret Leibfried.

"She said it's really good, and it's like a really important thing for her because she really wants the kids to understand it," said Martinson.

Leibfried has told the Bully Bosses their kid-friendly rewrite of the district's policy will be printed in the student handbook and posted on the walls of Fridley Middle School.