(MCT) — Last school year, 11-year-old Ronan Schuelke wasn't sure what to do when another boy in his class shoved him and called him names in the lunchroom.
This year, Ronan has been chosen by his peers at Stratford Middle School in Bloomingdale to star in a music video designed to teach respect through a catchy parody of a Katy Perry song.
After the school's students watch the video, Ronan and other student leaders will hand out "Stallion Medallions" to classmates who try to stop bullying or who reinforce positive behavior. Students can score a medallion for telling a classmate to stop picking on someone, by sitting with a new student at lunch or by committing other random acts of kindness. The tokens can be redeemed for school supplies, tickets to plays or other small rewards. The school's mascot is a stallion.
"I think this (concept) is something the kids will pick up ... and maybe try it," Ronan said.
As students settle back into school hallways where peer pressure lurks and insults await, the new approach at Stratford underscores an ongoing shift in how educators across the state and country deal with bullying.
In the past, administrators often relied on individual conversations, sporadic motivational speakers and other piecemeal attempts focused on telling students not to be mean. But in recent years, media attention, state mandates and research on bullying have prompted dozens of school districts across Illinois — including at least 10 in the Chicago suburbs — to try a more inclusive approach that addresses peer aggression while instilling a broader message of respect, educators say.
"Teaching them to show respect to each other is more effective than saying, 'Don't be a bully,'" said Brian Meyer, operations director for the state's Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports network. The organization provides schools with information on the latest anti-bullying techniques.
Under the network, schools acknowledge that all students are capable of and vulnerable to "bullying behavior." Administrators survey students on problem areas, then faculty and students are trained in a schoolwide approach called "Stop, Walk and Talk."
The idea is to give students a rehearsed response aimed at halting bullying instantly. For example, a student who sees someone bullying another could walk up to the aggressor and say, "Stop," or use a hand signal and then tell a teacher.
"This is really focusing on what works and creating an environment for all students to be successful," Meyer said, adding that the students help determine what the token or reward should be.
Many educators and researchers applaud the effort as a way to lower bullying rates, which have remained flat for years. Others worry that rewarding good behavior with tokens or other perks sends the wrong message with short-lived results. It's estimated that 20 to 30 percent of school-age children are either bullied or engage in bullying, reports say.
"Extrinsic motivation has limited availability to really promote a love of learning and to promote a moral compass," said Jonathan Cohen, president of the National School Climate Center and adjunct professor in psychology and education at Teachers College at Columbia University.
"Intrinsic motivation is significantly more powerful," Cohen said.
Two decades ago, bullying was often seen as a rare occurrence, where small groups of parents sought protection for their children with the school district.
But when the problem was blamed for widely reported shootings and suicides, parents started lobbying for help and legislators got involved, said Dorothy Espelage, a professor of educational psychology at University of Illinois known for her research on bullying.
Since the Colorado shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, 49 states, including Illinois, have passed laws requiring schools to have anti-bullying policies and programs, Espelage said.
As educators burdened by tight resources and an emphasis on test scores learned of research that indicated prevention works best when addressed by a schoolwide approach, many principals turned to the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports network.
Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the effort began 15 years ago, focusing on students with special needs or who had severe disciplinary problems. During the next decade it was expanded to include all students. By 2011, more than 250 school leaders from across Illinois attended a forum to learn how the network could be used to tackle bullying.
Participants learned to build on approaches already used to teach students how to behave on playgrounds, or to be on time for class or to encourage other positive behaviors.
Soon after the forum, administrators from all eight schools in Bloomingdale's Community Consolidated School District 93 adopted a multitiered plan that now includes an Expect Respect Club at some schools, where kids wear brightly colored T-shirts emblazoned with the logo.
Last spring, students began delivering the message through videos and classroom talks. Building on that effort, students this fall are trying approaches that include the anti-bullying tokens and the Katy Perry video at Stratford Middle School, said Julie Augustyn, prevention coordinator for the district.
Augustyn has heard critics of the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports network question how effective these efforts will be when students no longer receive tokens or rewards for good behavior.
"I don't proclaim that we're doing everything perfectly," she said, shrugging off the critique. "But to see this many middle schoolers come out and (who) are enthusiastic — the kids get it."
At Schaumburg District 54, students at all 27 elementary schools will be reminded in upcoming weeks of the "Stop, Walk and Talk" hand signals and language. By the end of the school year, officials hope to also teach the approach at the library, park district and in law enforcement offices to make it a communitywide effort, said Dolly Mandrelle, a positive behavior network coach for the district.
"A couple of years ago … kids were just reporting bullying. We didn't know how to respond to it in a consistent manner," said Lynn Owens, the district's other network coach. "Now we're being proactive and not reactive."
Researchers say it will take time before these approaches can be measured.
In a report published in 2012 in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, a study of 29,000 students at 37 elementary schools in Maryland showed that schools using PBIS saw discipline problems drop by a third. The study also showed significant drops in bullying within two years, according to Catherine Bradshaw, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, who co-authored the report.
"There aren't any quick, easy solutions that are going to happen after one hour or an afternoon," she said. "When we see promising programs, we want to make sure we do systematic research to really document (their) impact."
Chintan Dave, an 8th-grader at Stratford, had a more immediate goal when he accepted a teacher's invitation to join the school's "Expect Respect" club.
Chintan, 13, found a different bus to ride two years ago after kids on his own route mocked his Indian accent, he said. Last week, he wore his neon-orange "Expect Respect" T-shirt with high hopes.
"I don't want anyone to go through what I went through," he said.
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