Anti-bullying conference draws more than 20 local schools to’grassroots’ event at Simpson

by Emily SchettlerStaff Writer

More than 300 students will converge on the Simpson campus over fall break. They all will be participants in a campaign to reduce bullying in area schools.

The “Think. Act. Build.” Conference that is being held at Simpson on Oct. 25 is part of a research project being conducted by the Education Department. The department has been planning a conference for several months.

Professor of Education Steve Rose, who is directing the conference, said the goal is to provide school districts with an effective anti-bullying program they might not be able to create themselves. Approximately 25 schools from almost 20 school districts around Iowa are expected to attend, with the students ranging from eighth grade to freshmen in high school.

“This is the first time to my knowledge that there has been a program involving multiple school districts to stop bullying,” Rose said. “It is something that smaller school districts could never do for themselves. They couldn’t afford the expertise.”

That expertise includes speeches by several area education specialists. Nate Munson from Iowa Safe Schools will be discussing sexual and gender harassment. Trish Parizek, a police liaison for the West Des Moines schools, is speaking about cyber bullying and Karolyn Zeller and Susen Shirmer, from the Heartland Area Education Association will cover physical and emotional bullying. Governor Chet Culver is also scheduled to appear.

In addition to presenting at the conference, Shirmer, a professional learning and leadership consultant who has been with Heartland AEA for three years, has taken an active role in helping to plan it.

“I was very excited when I heard about it,” Shirmer said. “It’s almost as if it’s a grass-roots type of thing. It targets the students who have a much more active role.”

Fred Jones, professor of sociology and criminal justice and chair of the division of education and social science, said that more and more research is indicating the lasting affects of bullying on both the bullied and the bullies.

“Those who bully have higher than expected probabilities of engaging in intimidating behavior as adults,” Jones said.

One way that leaders of the conference are trying to curb this is by presenting a new solution, known as restorative justice.

“Traditionally, we try to determine who the bully is and then punish them for their inappropriate behavior,” Jones said. “Restorative justice focuses on mending relationships and involves all affected parties.”

Jones said that the importance of this approach is to emphasize getting help for the bully as well as the victim.

By the end of the conference, student groups from each school will have created an action plan for how to fight bullying in their schools. They will be expected to report back with results. The schools will also communicate with one another to find out what has been effective.

Shirmer said that one of the real benefits of the program is that students will be instrumental in creating and implementing the campaigns.

“The number one thing of the conference is to bring students into the mix for controlling bullying,” Shirmer said. “Teachers and administrators do what they can, but there’s a lot they don’t actually see. If they are unaware of what’s happening, they can’t do anything about it. Students are in the thick of things. This will give the ownership to the kids to do something about it.”

In fact, the conference is geared almost entirely towards the students.

“There will be teams comprised of ten students from each school,” Rose said. “Each team has one adult sponsor.”

Simpson students will take an active role in the campaign as well. In addition to helping run the conference, students will lead target discussions about ways to combat bullying. There will be a panel of Simpson students who have been bullied.

After the conference, students from Simpson will collect data to find out the effectiveness of the conference and what people learned.

Rose said the project will be beneficial to his students as well as those attending the conference.

“It gives Simpson students an opportunity to do hands-on research,” he said. “They are not doing the experiment just for the sake of experimenting.”

The education department decided to hold the conference after they received a mini-grant from the Academic Dean’s office. The grants were given to departments with plans to do applied research.

Rose said he’s always had the anti-bullying concern on his mind.

“I’m an advocate of the underdog, typically,” he said. “I’ve read a lot about schools and learned some really cool things at the safe schools conference. This is a spin-off of that.”

Jones said that this conference is one of many that the Social Science Department has sponsored on issues such as profiling and school violence. The department is also holding another conference this fall on sex offender policies in Iowa.