NAVIGATING A MINEFIELD
Carlson joined the Parkland School District, home of Orefield Middle, in 2013. District administrators had already adopted the Olweus program, but they were eager to make it more of a priority.
Carlson learned of the Olweus program while earning his doctorate in clinical psychology, but he didn’t fully grasp the importance of a comprehensive strategy to address bullying until going through training delivered by Clemson faculty.
“We deal with a lot of gray area,” Carlson says. “There are times when the student reporting bullying has also bullied other students or even the same student they say is victimizing them. If the behavior has gone unnoticed or unreported for a long time, it can be extremely difficult to make the overall dynamic clear.”
Through training, Carlson has learned to address the situations between students while doing detective work to understand the bigger picture. No two prescriptions are the same; what works for direct or indirect verbal bullying won’t necessarily work for physical or cyberbullying.
Carlson and school staff almost always involve parents; he also works with teachers and administrators who will need to supervise the situation. Sometimes, a counselor will meet with students to help develop strategies to deal with conflict.
According to Carlson, the key steps to addressing bullying incidents are focusing on the behavior — not the person — and recognizing the pattern so that the school can put policies in place that will reduce the likelihood the behavior continues. Following up to ensure that the pattern hasn’t reemerged is just as important.
“[The program] goes so far beyond addressing bullying; it’s more of a community-building program,” Carlson says. “Our kickoff event pre-emptively addresses the pattern of bullying and influences the students’ mindset. It’s really rewarding to work at the systems level to help the whole community come together, and the only reason it’s successful is because we get so many people involved.”
That buy-in is a large part of the reason instances of bullying have decreased in the school significantly since the Olweus program efforts began. It’s also why the International Bullying Prevention Association awarded $5,000 to one of the district’s schools for using best practices in bullying prevention.