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Panelists for the bullying discussion were HCMS Principal Maggie Wilkerson and teacher Jackie Coleman, Anne Leggett, a licensed professional counselor with Faces of Virginia, and Brooke Gasperini, president of Faces of Virginia. / December 14, 2017
‘If you have a choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”

That line from the book Wonder served as the theme of a bullying forum organized by Halifax County Public Schools and attended by parents and students Sunday afternoon at World of Sports.

Parents of students at the high school and middle school received invitations to attend the matinee screening of Wonder at World of Sports Cinema, followed by a panel discussion about the movie’s message on bullying.

Wonder is the screen adaptation of a book by the same name, written by R.J. Palacio It tells the story of Auggie, a 10-year-old boy who was born with distorted facial features caused by an anomaly in his DNA. After 27 surgeries and years of home schooling, Auggie attends school for the first time as a fifth-grade student.

Moderated by Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg, the panel included Halifax County Middle School Principal Maggie Wilkerson, Anne Leggett, a licensed professional counselor with Faces of Virginia, Brooke Gasperini, president of Faces of Virginia, and Jackie Coleman, a teacher at the middle school.

An attentive group of about 30 listened as Lineburg posed questions to the panel based on the movie’s main themes of bullying, juvenile mental health, and kindness, followed by an open question and comment session. Lineburg’s queries to the panel and the responses were as follows:

» How should Halifax County embrace the first precept of Wonder — “If you have a choice to be right or be kind, choose kind?”

One of the movie’s characters, Summer, chose to befriend Auggie in spite of her other friends’ obvious dislike for him. The three bullies in the story wanted power over Auggie, which they achieved by minimizing Auggie’s value as a person.

Leggett said she drew this observation from the relationship: “Being right is about power, being kind is about courage ... The question we have to ask, is what do we want to be, powerful or courageous?”

Gasperini suggested that “reaching out to people not in our social circles — being more inclusive as a county is important.”

Wilkerson believes we need to acknowledge and honor our students for acts of kindness.

» Lineburg pointed out that each character in “Wonder” displayed mental health challenges, and questioned how schools can be supportive of the issues that local students face in school.

Each of the bullies portrayed in Wonder, all fifth-grade students, were dealing with mental health problems arising from family circumstances. Auggie served as a relief valve for these kids — the object onto which they pour their hurt, frustration, and anger. Each of the adults in the story were also dealing with mental health issues, with very different results.

Leggett stressed that awareness, through workshops and presentations, plays a major role. Mental health issues look different in children from adults, and it is important for educators to understand the signals and signs our students display.

Gasperini added that school personnel need to understand “that every child comes to school with a different perspective — a world view created by their environment — and a normal that varies from child to child…Teachers need to understand this, and be able to recognize and understand what the student is experiencing.”

Coleman and Wilkerson agreed that mental health education and professional development are the first steps to building awareness.

» What can we do to help in areas of high stress at school — cafeterias, hallways, physical education, etc?

In Wonder, many of the bullying incidents occurred in the cafeteria and the hallways, although not all were overt acts, as one of the bullies often left notes in Auggie’s locker and on his desk.

Wilkerson explained that proper planning is important to manage less structured school areas like cafeterias and hallways, and that behavioral expectations must be taught, modeled, and constantly reinforced. She added that clear communications of behavioral expectations and limits is key.

Coleman pointed out that Halifax County Middle School has implemented ways to guide student behavior, like having teachers in the hallways during class changes, and a teacher or para-professional at bathroom doors during breaks.

Lineburg added that a change in sixth- and seventh-grade schedules to overlap keeps the middle school halls from jamming up, and the cafeteria calm.

» What is the best advice you can give parents about addressing bullying — who should they contact and what expectations should they have?

Even though Auggie’s parents and sister were superstars of support, Auggie still found it difficult to open up to them.

Coleman stated that students must know that they can trust teachers.

Wilkerson believes in the importance of listening to our kids, talking with them about non-violent ways to respond, encouraging students to share their experiences with teachers or administration. Parents should expect the school to take care of bullying reports and most of all keep students safe.

Gasperini understands that parents have high expectations, especially with regard to keeping their children safe. Parents should be able to sit down with their child and listen, call the school in a reasonable manner to discuss the problem, and give the school an opportunity to address the issue.

» What advice would you give students if they are victims of bullying at school?

Auggie did not want to be considered weak, so he did not share his situation, and the kids who cared about Auggie, and knew the story, were afraid of being rejected by other friends.

Coleman wants kids to report, and continue to report until something is done – be persistent.

Wilkerson urges students to find someone they trust and share what they know, whether they are the victim or a witness to an event.

Lineburg believes that students should use common sense and take precautions, like always walking with a friend.

After the prearranged questions, Lineburg opened up the forum to questions or comments by those in attendance.

Mary Combs, parent of a seventh-grade student at HCMS, commented on what an excellent event this was and wanted to know if the movie and forum event could be held at schools with small groups of students.

Lineburg replied that multiple options are on the table for using the movie and the book. Parents can get copies of the book if they want to use it to have discussions at home. In addition, the entire sixth grade is reading Wonder.

One parent wanted to know how you make students feel it is okay to report bullying, either as a witness or a victim

Lineburg responded that the key is building a school atmosphere where kids feel safe.

Wilkerson added that teachers must build relationships with kids and the HCMS Bully Prevention Team helps that process. Team members include Wilkerson, vice principals Gwendolyn Smith-Mangum, Francine Davis, and Thomas Foster, school counselors Tammie Ewell and Julia Powell, and teachers Marvin Bowman, Bridget Turner, and LeVar Medley.

The team meets frequently, and members are a point of contact for student referrals and intervention when bullying is reported; administrators and counselors work to investigate reported incidents.

They are currently working with the technology department to develop an automated reporting system for bullying incidents as well as individual student tracking.

“It’s the power of communication, and the student’s trust that once an incident is shared, the school will do something about it,” added Wilkerson.

Another parent wanted to know if the schools monitor social media for bullying problems.

Lineburg explained that this is not legally possible, but if a threat is made, the school system can take action.

In a later conversation, Combs, who is from New York, says she had personal experience dealing with a bullying situation involving her daughter Madison. The incident had a positive outcome then, and she hopes it would be the same in Halifax. She said she was not sure what bullying prevention programs Halifax Middle School had, but she plans to ask at the next PTA board meeting.

Comb’s daughter, Madison, said she liked the movie and it reminded her of the bullying she experienced in fifth grade, “I had a friend, and all of a sudden she changed and started bullying me about the clothes I wore – it didn’t feel good. I told my mom, who talked to the girl and her parents.” She said she has not experienced any bullying problems at Halifax County Middle School.

The forum, arranged by Lineburg, Superintendent of Elementary Education Lisa Long and World of Sports owner Jay Burnett, is the first of what Lineburg hopes will be many community outreach programs to involve parents and the community in solving the challenges facing our schools today.

Long also hopes that more community forums will be planned because having a dialogue with our community is important. Although bullying is usually thought of as a middle and high school problem, it often begins in elementary. Long said that all elementary homeroom teachers teach a weekly bully-related lesson, and guidance counselors provide bullying awareness training throughout the year. She thinks that once Wonder is out on DVD, bringing it into the classrooms is a great idea.

Twice a year, each elementary school holds a special bullying focused event. October, for example, was designated “Bully Prevention Month,” said Long. The idea is to keep these issues front and center.

“Wonder-ful” was the response of parents and students who attended the forum and the screening of the movie “Wonder.” Madison Combs told her mother she cried five times, but Mrs. Combs said she cried all the way through.

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