For Washington Community School Principal Kenneth Kopacz, state-mandated classroom instruction for dealing with the issue of bullying was not enough.
So when some of his staff came up with the idea that they should make it clear to the community as a whole that bullying was not an acceptable behavior in or out of schools, he agreed.
“We wanted our school to take the lead and make a bold statement,” Kopacz said.
And the sign that stretched for several hundred feet across the fence along the Kennedy Boulevard side of the school did just that, drawing the attention of drivers, pedestrians, and others coming or going from the city of Bayonne.
Installed in early December, the sign is the first of its kind in Hudson County, making a clear statement that bullying will not be tolerated.
Even though Washington Community School has among the lowest incidents of reported bullying, Kopacz said the school needed to take the next step.
“We want our students to feel good about themselves and to deal with people in a positive way.” – Kenneth Kopacz
According to Steve Yurchak, an art teacher, this follows the lead of Schools Superintendent Dr. Patricia McGeehan and the Board of Education, who introduced this year an anti-bullying campaign called “Let There Be Peace in Bayonne,” something designed to not only curb possible abuse of students by other students, but to empower victims of bullying and to encourage them to report these incidents.
Going beyond the law
The state’s move to curb bullying came out of a highly publicized incident at one of the colleges.
The idea, Yurchak said, is for the school and the community to work as a team.
“We want to build a sense of pride,” Yurchak said, and that the new sign serves as a symbol of that effort.
The school district introduced the new program to meet the stipulations of a New Jersey law that said every district had to have an anti-bullying policy in place by Sept. 1. The program encouraged parents to talk with their children and to empathize with them, and to work with the school district to deal with the situation.
Kopacz said the school, under state law, must include anti-bullying lessons in the curriculum, but that the school’s guidance department is also deeply involved in the program.
Guidance Officer Maura Petrillo goes to various classes throughout the school to talk about bullying issues and how to combat them. She said she is part of a wider effort to bring the message to the students.
Students are told that if they see an instance of bullying they should report it to the staff, and this sets into motion a series of corrective action by the administration to investigate and deal with the situation.
In the classroom lessons, students are asked to define what bullying is, and are taught how not to be a bully.
“We want each student to become a buddy, not a bully,” Petrillo said.
She said there are a number of causes for bullying, and often kids do not know they are being bullies and are unaware of the pain their actions cause in other students.
She said lessons cover how to cope with being bullied and how to avoid being a bully, and to show all students the negative consequences bullying has.
Art provides a venue for students
The art classes have become an instrument for allowing students to express themselves, such as with the hallway tree where the students hang messages of hope. Yurchak said students write into leaves what they want to say and it is hung on the tree.
Three of the students – Jeter, Daniela, and Brianna – said they felt good about creating leaves for the tree.
But the sign in front of the school was partly inspired by Teacher Assistant Karen Laba, who worked closely with Yurchak to design and later install the sign.
Made up of small pieces of plastic, the sign was designed by a company to fit on the fence in front of the school. Staff members spent hours attaching the pieces.
The original idea was to center the sign on the school yard fence, but Yurchak pushed to have it moved to one side where the bus stop was located and it would not be blocked by parked cars.
“The idea is to alert the community,” Yurchak said. “We want to bring awareness to the community in general.”