By Stuart Hirsch
The Herald Bulletin
---- — ANDERSON — School leaders and students, police and education experts convened at Anderson High School on Thursday to begin laying the groundwork for new anti-bullying programs.
The Indiana General Assembly this year passed legislation that changes the definition of bullying, and requires school districts to compile data and create new reporting and training programs for students and staff.
Thursday's meeting was the first discussion at the high school to discuss the new mandates and craft age-appropriate bullying education classes for all students by an October 15 deadline.
Anderson Police Chief Larry Crenshaw noted that when he "walked the halls" as an officer 16 years ago, bullying was characterized by "true physical violence."
In the years since then, however, the problem has become more subtle, but no less of a problem. With the rise of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram, so-called cyber-bullying has become a national problem, highlighted by several suicides of teenagers who were subjected to online humiliation.
The rise of social media has changed popular definitions of what constitutes bullying, but students on Tuesday said differences in clothing, economic status, sexual orientation, and appearance are still the main drives.
"Most of what I've seen is if somebody is different in either appearance or the clothing," said incoming freshman Joe Kirkpatrick. "There's a lot of backlash."
Newly-appointed Anderson High School Principal Terry Thompson said a uniform dress code was established to try and minimize some of those differences, but noted he's heard about gray areas and inconsistent enforcement of the dress code.
"Our job is to make sure, because it's policy, that the rules will be enforced consistently, and you will hear that over and over again," Thompson said.
Despite a uniform dress code, however, students know who has money and who doesn't, members of the panel said. And race and sexual orientation are factors.
"The battle between the races and sexuality is still going on," said Austin Chambers, a senior who founded a student group called Equality United, in part to create a safe haven in school for students who might feel vulnerable because they're different from other kids.
"I brush it off. It doesn't bother me anymore," Chambers said. "But I know of three people right now that it has affected a lot."
"It's an issue of understanding and tolerance," said Anderson University School of Education Professor Donna Albrecht, adding that tolerance needs to be taught beginning at a young age, "obviously before middle school."
At the same time, she said not every conflict is a bullying situation, so learning how to effectively resolve conflicts is training that also would be valuable.
Thompson said one of the things school leadership and student leaders should work on is empowering students to intervene and take students who are being bullied out of that situation. He also said that student courts can be created to help resolve conflicts.
Developing those programs will cost money, and cannot possibly be in place by October, Thompson said.
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Continuing Effort The anti-bullying working group convened by new Anderson High School Principal Terry Thompson will meet again August 1 at 9 a.m.