In June, the parent of a sixth-grader said her daughter had been repeatedly harassed and bullied for more than a year because of her race.
School administrators later admitted that they hadn't done enough to protect the girl from harassment. As Chris Knight reports, officials have taken several steps to change the school policy and culture.
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Last week, students at Petrova Elementary School and the Saranac Lake Middle School attended separate assemblies about bullying prevention put on by actors Ryan Nelson and Jeremy Rubenstein (ruben-steen). Their "Box Out Bullying" program uses audience participation and slapstick comedy to try and get students talking about why bullying is wrong.
"School is a place where you guys deserve to feel safe; that's your right," Rubenstein told the audience. "And a school stays unsafe if there's a problem and no one does anything or talks to anybody about it."
The program was timely. This spring a Saranac Lake middle-school girl had her possessions in her backpack broken and a racial slur written on a school sidewalk with her deodorant. Her mother said the harassment had been going on for more than a year.
Administrators were criticized for not being more responsive to the bullying and later apologized, saying the district failed in its responsibility to protect the girl.
Since then, Middle School Principal Patricia Kenyon said school officials have taken several steps to address the problem .
"There's an updated harassment and anti-bullying policy that will be in place. The board is looking at that right now. There was a lot of people we consulted over the summer to make sure everything, as far as policies and protocols are right where we need to be."
But are policy changes and presentations on bullying enough?
Rubenstein, who has a background in theater, education and journalism, said after last week's presentation that it takes a broad approach to curtail the bullying issues in a school.
"For something as serious as bullying, the whole culture needs to change," he said. "Bullying doesn't just affect the school, it affects the entire community. That's why we have the interactive assembly, and comprehensive follow-up activities to make sure that everybody – students, parents and faculty - are all on the same page."
School board president Debra Lennon said school officials are committed to making long-term changes to the district's core values, not just short term steps like tweaking policies or putting on bullying prevention programs.
"Any program we implement is going to have a 10 to 15 year - we're not going to see results on anything we do immediately. This is going to be generational. Obviously problems like this don't come around overnight. They're born into people, and it takes a long time to change how people feel and how people think."
But school officials can't do it on their own. Solving bullying problems also takes active parents, Lennon said.
"They need to understand how their kids react to certain circumstances, pay attention to moods, grades and all kinds of different things. Parents have to understand what their role is in all of this. This is a community wide issue."
Police investigated the incident earlier this year that led to the district's renewed focus on bulling prevention, but no arrests have been made or charges filed to date.
For North Country Public Radio, I'm Chris Knight in Saranac Lake.