There’s a poster on the wall on the way to Mike D’Ascenzo’s office in the Upper Elementary School (UES).
“No Bully Zone.”
He’s only two weeks into his new job as anti-bullying coordinator for the , but that’s D’Ascenzo’s goal: to make all six schools bully-free zones.
Urged forward by a historic anti-bullying law passed by the Legislature earlier this year, school districts across the state are to combat the culture of bullying that has persisted for so long within the school system.
Moorestown has always taken bullying seriously, D’Ascenzo insisted—assistant principal at UES, he was on an anti-bullying committee a couple years ago—but this is a much more coordinated effort.
Following the blueprint laid out by the state, the district has established an entire hierarchy of specialists: D’Ascenzo at the top, with an anti-bullying specialist in each school—often a guidance counselor or teacher—who heads up a safety team mandated to meet once a semester.
The specialist, with the aid of the rest of the team, must investigate any and all reports of HIB (harassment, intimidation, bullying) and stay in constant contact with the principal, the parents (of victim and bully) and the superintendent. D’Ascenzo said the new law focuses strongly on the investigation and reporting of incidents.
He said the district has created a way for students, and others, to anonymously report instances of bullying through the use of an online form.
“What this does, it coordinates the efforts,” D’Ascenzo said. “Communication and understanding is critical.”
The new law, and consequently the district’s policy, also places an emphasis on addressing bullying outside the classroom (e.g. cyberbullying) and empowering bystanders.
He said the district held “Welcome Back” assemblies at the beginning of the school year, where they talked about the new policy and urged students to “stand up and speak up.”
“There’s a variance really of how a student can respond. It depends on the incident and on the student,” D’Ascenzo said, indicating the importance of teaching a child when to step in on their own and when to go to an adult. “We’re talking about 9-, 10-, 11-year-old kids.”
Rose Trasatti, a guidance counselor and anti-bullying specialist at William Allen Middle School, said it’s difficult to motivate a student to intervene when they see bullying happening for a number of reasons.
But “more than anything else,” she said, “it’s that they’re not wanting to be the one who’s bullied.”
The complexities of the problem they’re attempting to solve are apparent to D’Ascenzo, Trasatti, and the rest of the school district staff.
Superintendent John Bach said the new law, while its merits and intention could not be questioned, was “architecturally put together hastily. When you have that kind of seismic change, it usually takes a little while to figure out how it works … It’s not going to be the work of a day.”
D’Ascenzo acknowledged the same, saying there would be “growing pains” with implementing the new policy.
As coordinator, he is responsible for designing the training for the safety teams within each school—tailoring the training to match each school’s individual needs. On Oct. 31, all the staff in the district will undergo training, addressing the various wrinkles in the policy, such as identifying the difference between “friendly teasing” and “hurtful teasing,” and the difference between teasing and bullying, among other things.
The underlying goal of all this, D’Ascenzo said, is “making sure students can come and learn, and learn in a healthy environment.”
It’s about changing a culture, changing a mindset, Trasatti said, as opposed to just reacting when something happens.
“You can’t just say, ‘Oh, it’s part of growing up,’” she said. “What we’re hoping the (kids) are going to see more and more is that bullying is not cool … You want to work with the bullies so they realize this is not the thing to do.”
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