Last week before an audience filled with parents, Doreen Zacher, the district’s Student Assistance Coordinator and Harrassment, Intimidation, and Bullying (HIB) specialist, along with Mrs. Paula Daloisio and student members of the high school "Buddy Program," held a presentation on how the New Milford school district is addressing New Jersey's new HIB law.
The "Buddy Program" consists of high school students who act as mentors, not only to their peers, but to younger children in the district from Kindergarten through eighth grade. The word "BUDDY" is an acronym for "Bully, Undermines, Developing, Diverse, Youths."
New Milford schools had adopted an anti-bullying policy long before New Jersey's HIB law took effect. Zacher had already incorporated the "Buddy Program" into the high school as a way to raise awareness among the students about the negative affects of bullying, and give them a way to safely report any occurences.
“Buddy Boxes” were in place in the guidance and nurse’s office allowing students to report on bullying incidents in a confidential manor.
Zacher had also put in place an anti-bullying club, anti-bullying seminars, and tolerance training and mentoring programs.
Additionally, the high school had sponsored a “Random Act of Kindness” Day and a “Day of Silence” as a way to raise awareness.
Zacher developed "The Buddy Program" as part of her Professional Learning Community (PLC) that Superintendent Michael Polizzi encourages all teachers to participate in. PLC's consist of groups of educators committed to working collaboratively to research a subject and develop a class or program targeted towards both the students and the teachers area of interest. The underlying assumption of PLC's is that continuous "embedded" learning for teachers is the key to improved learning for students.
"Teachers form their own PLC's," Superintendent Michael Polizzi informed Patch. "It's more powerful to have them present their ideas than for us to tell them what to do."
Polizzi emphasized the point that many teachers feel disenfranchised because they are allowed no direct input in the educational process. "In the PLC's, we not only respect the voices of our experts, we support them."
The "Buddy Program" was born from Zacher's research on the affects of bullying on a child's level of depression. She determined from her research that an anti-bullying program that included the active participation of student volunteers, would be an effective tool not only in raising awareness, but in helping children of all ages to understand and accept differences and embrace diversity. Zacher wanted to develop an entire program around her findings and presented it as her PLC, and the district wasted no time in adopting it.
A student who wants to be considered a "Buddy" has to apply through Zacher. Initially, she envisioned the program to include approximately 12 buddies. She received 37 applications of interest and after reading the persuasive essays of the applicants determined that all 37 would make outstanding buddies.
And so, when the HIB law took effect, the New Milford School district was well-prepared, as evidenced by Zacher's presentation. Using multi-media, along with the Buddy mentor's personal stories about bullying and the work that they are accomplishing in their Kindergarten through eighth grade mentor groups, Zacher informed the parents of the district's steps towards curbing, and reporting, incidents of bullying.
After the presentation, Zacher took questions from the audience and addressed questions about the reporting requirements of the HIB law, specifically that every incident of bullying be reported and recorded immediately. Zacher explained that the district acts immediately to investigate every reported instance of bullying. However, many reported incidences ultimately prove to be without merit.
More powerful than any powerpoint presentation was listening to the Buddies. Cheryl Minaya said that she joined the "Buddy Program" to lend strength to others who lack the confidence to stand up for themselves. Mary Costa said that it was through the "Buddy Program" that she learned "to find my strength," while Megan Kiely said that the program makes people realize that there are real consequences to their choices.
All agree that the years from middle school to high school are a turbulent journey that is difficult to navigate alone. The Buddies see their role as mentors as being a strong center; lending strength and guidance to those who have not yet found their voice, or lack the confidence to stand up for themselves.