By Director of Schools - Bobby Cox
I would like to inform the public of what our school system does to prevent bullying and teen suicide. Our school district does not turn a blind eye to these issues. Instead, we have consistently trained our staff and provided other support to create a safe and positive learning environment for all of our students.
Does bullying exist in our schools today? The answer is yes. Bullying is prevalent in all aspects of society, with adults and with our children. It is a problem in our nation. Statistics show over 3.2 million students are victims of bullying each year. It is also a problem in Tennessee.
According to one 2016 poll, Tennessee has the third highest percentage of high school students who miss school out of fear of being bullied.
Does bullying exist in our community? The answer again is yes.
Despite best efforts of schools to prevent it, bullying and other bad, destructive behavior can and sometimes does occur. When incidents do occur, our teachers, administrators and staff take action to stop it, remedy its effects and prevent it from happening again. If the school is aware of bullying, it can address it. However, reports of bullying are not always made by students to the school to be addressed. We would like this to change.
So, what do we have in place currently in our schools and what do we hope to add to our program in the future?
The school district takes our students’ mental and emotional health and safety very seriously. The board has adopted three policies that specifically deal with these topics which can be viewed in full on our school district website: Policy JCAD (discrimination, bullying, harassment and hazing), Policy JTA (cyberbullying), and Policy JGEE (student suicide prevention).
These policies require all school staff to have annual training prior to each school year. We also require our Durham bus drivers to receive this training.
These policies also provide a procedure to follow when a school is made aware of bullying or risk of suicide. A bullying investigator is staffed at each school to investigate allegations and make recommendations for appropriate responses to the bullying. Over the past three years we have had 858 bullying incidents reported and investigated district-wide. Of these, 278 indicated bullying occurred and were addressed with students. Counselors are also trained to address issues relating to suicide.
In 2014, the school district began working with the STARs Foundation in Nashville to provide staff and student development training on bullying prevention. The district conducted full day trainings for students and staff in all schools to help empower students to stand up against bullying and develop student groups at each school which would lead other students to take a stand against bullying. A second full day session was conducted in 2016. Each school may also add their own bullying programming.
Due to the upward trend in students with mental and emotional issues, in Warren County and nationwide, the high school wanted to provide more. In 2017-18, the high school partnered with STARS to provide additional, more intensive support for students who may be at greater risk because of mental illness or due to challenges or stressors resulting from adverse childhood experiences. As a result, the high school has had a full-time mental health counselor on site the last two years.
This year, the high school also applied for and received a highly competitive Trauma-Informed School Grant from the Tennessee Department of Education. WCHS was the only high school in the Upper Cumberland and one of only five high schools in the state to receive the grant.
The grant was awarded in part based on need and also in part based on steps the school had already taken to address student need. Trauma informed practices help create a positive school environment by helping adults in the school community to prepare to better recognize and to respond to those students who have been impacted by traumatic stress.
Research shows the benefits of implementing trauma-informed approaches in schools include improved relationships with teachers and students, school climate, decrease in suspensions and expulsions, improved attendance and general student well-being. Support and teacher training provided by this grant began in November 2018 and will be fully implemented at the high school over three years.
The School Board has also approved a Memorandum of Understanding with Centerstone, a mental health services provider, to provide mental health services for students at West Elementary School. We are also in discussion with Generations locally to provide the same services to other schools in our district.
Our district has one school counselor in each PreK-8 schools, two at the middle school, and five at the high school. We also have a nurse in every school.
Every school in the district also has the support of two social workers, six school psychologists and two behavior specialists.
In the development of our strategic plan two years ago, we included a five-year goal for improvement of school culture in all schools through Social Emotional Learning and Positive Behavior Supports. This work focuses on building stronger relationships between students and staff and decreasing negative behaviors and chronic absenteeism. We have seen great success over the past year as evidenced by a report just shared with our board and the County Commission Education Committee in its February meetings.
Over the past eight years we have provided all school counselors, nurses and others with a full day of training in January on issues related to mental and emotional health. This training, sponsored by Homeland Community Bank, has specifically focused on bullying and suicide prevention.
In the coming year, we will continue to analyze data and add other supports to our program to meet the needs of our students.
The high school is already in the process of changing to the academic academy focus. This approach supports smaller/ focused academic learning academies that will allow teachers and students to build stronger relationships while strengthening academics. Next year, the high school also plans to provide a dedicated advisory time for students to meet as a small classroom group to build relationship and connectedness with teachers, other students and the school. The district is also investigating other means of reporting bullying or suicidal ideations in addition to our already developed Text-a-Tip line such as, but not limited to, text messaging, apps, or other modes which will allow students more and broader opportunities to report.
Our staff prioritizes student safety and well-being and will continue to encourage our students to talk to teachers, counselors, staff, parents and even each other if problems arise.
We all need to be part of the solution in our schools and in our community. Warren County School District will continue to do its best to appropriately prevent and address bullying behavior and meet the social emotional needs of students. However, we can do so much more with the help of all of our students, parents, staff and the entire school community.