9:06 p.m. PDT May 19, 2016
Students at Stephens Middle School in Salem are taking up the topic of bullying behaviors in an instructional advisory class on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Tuesday morning, the students discussed what bullying looks like at Stephens, what some of the root causes might be, and how parents, teachers and other students should work to prevent and address bullying behavior.
Students were challenged to put themselves in the positions of bully and victim. They were asked about cyberbullying, about bullying between school and home, and about ways to stop it. But the students themselves wrote the questions.
The advisory class, held twice a week between second and third period, started three years ago, when a small group of teachers worked to structure a class that would teach organization, team building and life skills.
The students are randomly selected for the classes, but are with their age group — sixth, seventh, or eighth graders.
Aimee Leaton, a language arts teacher and leader for the advisory program, said the students have risen to the high standards they set.
“I am floored by the ideas they come up with,” she said. “You plan and hope for it, but when you see it, it’s a whole new thing.”
The program is split into two types of classes, known as “philosophical chairs” and “Socratic seminar.”
Philosophical chairs is a debate-style class where students are challenged to argue certain topics. The Socratic seminar is more of a round-table discussion, in which students are encouraged to ask deeper questions, gain a mature understanding of a subject, and discuss the topic with their peers.
This is where the bullying topic has played a large role.
Tuesday, the students broke into groups to discuss questions such as “If you were a bully, why would you want to bully other people?”
One student said someone might be a bully “because they are bullied” at home or by relatives. Another said the bully might be jealous of someone and bully them for it. And one girl said they might just want to make themselves feel like they are better than others.
Leaton said at the beginning of the year, the students said the school should take all the bullies and lock them away. But now, the students are beginning to understand there might be more to the story and there might be better ways to address the situation.
Stephens Middle School has more than 1,000 students, about 53 percent of whom speak a language other than English at home and about 87 percent of whom are qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.
While this program has been implemented only at Stephens, Principal Jennifer Madland said others can adopt it.
She said some schools have an advisory class like a homeroom class, but that tends to be a study period or time when students slack off.
Madland said Stephens staff have been intentional with the program to make sure the lessons are structured into the students’ learning.
She said they also work with Stephens-centered data, so when students have ideas for solutions, they can be used at the school.
This also helps build the students’ confidence and shows other students they can make a difference too, she said.
While the solutions wouldn’t change the district policy the school already follows, the program identifies actionable ideas the school can implement to help combat bullying, Madland said.
And the work is paying off.
“Our discipline numbers for bullying incidents are not any higher at Stephens than at other middle schools,” Madland said. “Actually, our discipline numbers in general have fallen significantly over the past few years, in part due to our ‘all hands on deck’ philosophy of problem-solving.”
Madland said the school sets high expectations for students, but they rise to them.
“The students want to be held accountable,” she said. “We told them, ‘We can’t do this without you,’ and they really responded to that.”
Natalie Pate is the education reporter for the Statesman Journal. Contact Natalie at npate@StatesmanJournal.com, 503-399-6745, or follow her on Twitter @Nataliempate, on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist or on the Web at nataliepate.com