In the past year, Downtown Elementary Magnet Academy has reduced its number of reported bullying cases more than any other Muscogee County public school, according to district data. Downtown had the most bullying cases in the district in 2011-12, with 56, but decreased that number in 2012-13 to nine, as of last month.
Three Muscogee County schools went from double-digit bullying incidents last school year to zero this year with a month of school remaining -- Veterans Memorial Middle from 26, Spencer High from 16, and Early College Academy from 12.
Overall, the district's total number of reported bullying incidents has dropped about 46 percent -- from 623 in 2011-2012 to 335 in the current school year.
Elementary schools and high schools have cut their number of bullying incidents roughly in half since the 2011-2012 school year -- high schools dropping from 113 to 56 incidents, and elementary schools from 228 to 108.
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Reducing bullying remains a struggle in middle schools, where the total number of bullying incidents has dropped slightly, from 182 to 171, with several weeks remaining on the school calendar.
At Downtown Elementary, reducing bullying seems to have started with planting seeds.
Two years ago, after each Downtown class had begun its own garden, principal Tonya Douglass looked for students to help plant the principal's garden. She figured gathering six notorious bullies together might be a good idea.
These students didn't know why they were chosen, but they learned they could use their words and actions for a positive purpose. These bullies, whose ugly behavior lowered the esteem of fellow students, got down on their knees with Douglass to grow some beauty.
They planted seeds of respect along with the pansies and snapdragons and violas. For 15-20 minutes three times a week, they nurtured their garden and they let down their tough-guy guards.
"They would talk to the plants so gently, so sweetly," Douglass said. "The other kids they were mean to weren't out there. I think if they were and they had an audience, they wouldn't have done that."
Through a request under the state's Open Records Act, the Ledger-Enquirer received the number of bullying cases reported at each Muscogee County school in 2011-12 and this year, as of last month.
This school year, Hannan Elementary Magnet Academy has reported 17 bullying cases, the most among elementary schools, but that number has dropped considerably, from 43 last year.
The middle school and high school with the most bullying incidents have actually seen an increase since last year: Eddy has 36 reported bullying incidents, up from 34, and Carver has 16, up from 10.
Douglass, in her fourth year as Downtown's principal, doesn't have statistics that show whether the gardening prompted those bullies to decrease their destructive behavior, but she is convinced the school-wide project is an example of a larger lesson: The more reasons students have to play a part, the fewer chances they have to pull apart.
"They find something in common," Douglass said. "Those little hands, they are caring and cooperating. They are invested and they love it. Activities like that cause us to further bond and appreciate one another."
Garry McGiboney, associate state superintendent for policy at the Georgia Department of Education, has worked 38 years in education, including 10 years as a school psychologist in DeKalb County. He considers the Downtown gardening project the type of activity that should bloom at every school.
"We are in a learning environment, so we teach things like reading and writing and math," McGiboney said, "but we also have to teach pro-social behavior.
"That principal created a community."
Herbie Jack doesn't need a state official or research to convince him that Downtown has found the right path. He sees it every day in the joy his fourth-grade son has for learning and going to school.
Jack recalled two times his son came home and told him he was teased about his last name or for having buck teeth. Both times, Jack alerted his son's teacher with an email that night, and the teacher responded both times the next day.
"They said they were going to take care of it right away," Jack said. "They referred it to the principal, and the principal called the boys in, and it never happened again."
Jack appreciates the zero-tolerance policy for even mild personal attacks.
"It means it's a very good, secure school," he said. "It means the principal and teachers and staff take bullying as a serious impediment to a child's social well-being and a major impediment to a child's learning. They don't put up with any nonsense."
Jack acknowledged his son tried to convince him not to report the teasing to his teacher. The son said he was fine and the boys were just making a joke. But the father knew the teasing must have hurt his son, or he wouldn't have disclosed it.
"I told him I have to report it so something that begins small doesn't grow into something bigger," Jack said. "I also told him don't retaliate in return."
Now, his son and the boys who teased him are friends, Jack said.
"I believe the school has worked very hard to see that this kind of thing is minimized," Jack said. "I'm seeing an awareness, a seriousness."
And the Downtown staff explains to students why, Douglass said.
"When you're at home or on the playground in your neighborhood, sometimes you have to defend yourself," she said. "But when you come through these doors, it's not your responsibility to defend yourself; it's your teacher's and mine. So we teach them that if they feel demeaned or degraded, tell an adult. It's not your job to fix it; it's our job."
School district officials say they haven't changed the district's system of preventing and handling bullying since a 13-year-old Rothschild Middle School student's suicide in March. He hung himself at home after he was bullied several times throughout the school year, including for "snitching" that day, when he told a teacher his girlfriend brought a knife to school to kill a teacher. But those bullying incidents never were reported to the proper authorities. That case has raised more awareness, said Muscogee County School District student services chief Melvin Blackwell.
"We're putting our current program under a microscope to see if there's something we need to be doing differently," he said.
Blackwell and Muscogee County School District guidance director Trikella Nelson outlined that program:
School administrators are trained about bullying at the beginning of each school year. Administrators train their staffs, and the staffs train the students.
This year, in the second semester, the school district implemented training about a certain type of bullying: cyber-bullying, when students harass or threaten each other online or through texting.
During the school year, K-12 guidance counselors teach seven lessons focused on bullying prevention. They also explain the school's rules and the state's laws about bullying, and they show students how to report bullying.
Before the first of the seven anti-bullying lessons, guidance counselors survey students. Then the counselors use the same survey after the last anti-bullying lesson. They use the results to see whether and how their lessons are making a difference.
Some schools conduct special programs, including No Name Calling Week, Mix It Up Day, and Chain of Kindness.
Blackwell urges parents and students to be partners with the teachers and administrators as they combat bullying.
"We can do that by keeping the relationship piece intact," he said. " For people to tell, that has been one of our biggest challenges."
Nelson recommends parents ask specific questions about their children's day at school. Instead of "How did it go?" ask "How was your time on the playground?" or "Who did you sit next to at lunch?" to elicit more details.
Blackwell also encourages students and parents to continue following up on a bullying case.
"If interventions don't work, it's very important the parent or child comes back and says this is still going on," he said. "Sometimes, we perform an intervention we think would be adequate, and then we don't get the feedback."
Bullying is among the 28 categories of discipline the state's public schools are required to report to the Georgia Department of Education, which uploads the data to the U.S. Department of Education, McGiboney said. But bullying has been a required category in the state for only two school years.
Some schools used to report bullying as "violence" or "simple battery" or not at all, McGiboney said, before the Georgia Legislature changed the state law in 2010.
McGiboney praised schools such as Downtown for being proactive.
"Instead of just reacting to bullying, they encourage prevention of bullying by viewing the entire school climate," he said. "We have found in research that in schools with the positive behavior intervention support their discipline referrals have dropped significantly."
'Every single day'
Despite the school's success in reducing bullying, Douglass says she insists that her staff, students and parents remain vigilant.
"It really is a monster we fight every single day," she said.
Douglass shines light on the dark code of silence against "snitching."
"Sometimes, our children come from a culture where they don't snitch," she said. "I tell them, 'I understand in your neighborhood those might be the rules you have to live by, but, in this school, you can't live by that rule.'"
Douglass' daughter, now in middle school, attended Clubview Elementary School, which was the first Muscogee County school to implement an Anti-Defamation League program called No Place for Hate. Clubview's principal at that time, Adele Lindsey, mentored Douglass. When she became Downtown's principal four years ago, Douglass saw the need for No Place for Hate at her school.
"We were really, really trying to make sure that every little person here had a purpose, felt valued and that they had a strong emotional link or bond to somebody here," Douglass said. "There's a good deal of research that indicates sometimes when people are on the cusp of making a poor decision, if there's somebody in their life who shares with them and they feel cared about, then they might think of not wanting to disappoint that and they might not make that poor choice."
Downtown's staff also read and discussed Jodi Picoult's 2006 novel "Nineteen Minutes," about a school shooting sparked by bullying.
Here are other ways Downtown improved its environment to combat bullying:
Adults are visible as much as possible to eliminate opportunities for mischief.
Keeping the building well-maintained is a priority. When staff members see something in disrepair, they immediately make a request to fix it.
The first two weeks of school each year, teachers are required to explain to their students why those chose to become teachers. "Most teachers really have a compelling story," Douglass said. "I feel that, especially with the older kids, if children can see you in a light other than as a teacher, if they hear that you also had a struggle that you overcame, I just think it helps build connections with them."
During those first two weeks, teachers also are required to play icebreaker games with their students so they learn more about each other. "Whey they actually know one another," Douglass said, "that acts like an inoculation against the bullying. So when you know my favorite color, my favorite movie, my favorite food, I'm more of a person to you. That also helps teachers design lessons around themes that the students are passionate about."
Downtown's cafeteria manager started a Celebrity Server program, where well-known local folks visit the school, help serve breakfast or lunch and interact with the students. "The kids notice, 'Gee, all of these people who come to see us went to college, so maybe that's something I want to do too,'" Douglass said.
Higher Learning Day allows Downtown students to leave their school uniform at home and wear their favorite college gear instead. "It helps our kids visualize what their lives can be," Douglass said. "Oftentimes, children make poor choices if they haven't imagined a myriad of positive outcomes, if they just see the sad outcomes right around them at home. So this helps them make better day-to-day choices and treat themselves with respect and others with respect."
TSYS, a Partner in Education, helped Downtown start its Ready to Race program, in which classes earn rewards for good behavior.
Downtown created a form for its staff to use when investigating a bullying allegation, so each case is handled with the same procedure. "We're trying to recognize patterns," Douglass said.
The school empowers bystanders. "If someone laughs and adds to the insult, they are bullying too," Douglass said. "So our children know to say, 'You can't do that. That's bullying. We don't do that here.'"
All of which impresses school district officials, such as Blackwell, when a principal is dedicated to doing what it takes to combat bullying.
"The person in the building makes a difference, having ownership of the duties and responsibilities," he said. "I truly believe all of our principals care about safety and the care of kids, but there are various degrees."