ADAMS TWP — After hearing from concerned students and parents in recent weeks, officials in the Mars School District are outlining plans to address diversity and bullying issues.
Two recent school board meetings have drawn large crowds, with many voicing concerns over an April incident in which “hateful rhetoric” led to a physical altercation between students. Many at those meetings shared personal experiences with bullying in the district and asked for changes to be made in how the district addresses reports of such incidents.
According to district officials, a confidential safety hot line will begin operation Tuesday. Students can call 724-625-2720 to report any issues with bullying, school safety and other matters. All information will be kept confidential and will be reviewed and addressed.
Wes Shipley, superintendent, said the hot line serves as another way for students to report problems, but is not intended to replace human interaction.
“Students have always been encouraged to report concerns to a trusted adult in their school or to tell their parents and have them contact the school office,” he said.
The idea for the hot line is something Shipley said has been discussed before, though it did not get much traction.
“When this situation presented itself, it was the perfect time to get to the forefront again,” he said.
The district will also work with Ashley Lovell, Passavant Memorial Homes & Subsidiaries vice president of corporate compliance, who will serve as an adviser for district officials. According to Dayle Ferguson, school board president, Lovell leads a corporatewide diversity program for the company, and will offer her knowledge and experience to the district at no cost.
Additionally, the board of school directors and the district’s administration are reviewing policies on discipline, harassment, bullying and cyberbullying. Any changes would be posted for public review.
“Policies are constantly under review, but this certainly provides a new light for us to consider when making this review,” Shipley said.
The district will also host a series of speakers and presentations on diversity and bullying in the coming weeks and at the start of next school year, including the Rachel’s Challenge program. According to Shipley, that programming has been accounted for in next year’s district budget and is the result of a fall meeting between the board and the education association. That meeting included administrators, board members, union representatives and a sponsor from the high school’s diversity club, who brought suggestions from those students.
Ferguson said the meeting aimed to review the district’s bullying and diversity programming to determine if it remained applicable. She said they found the program, Olweus, to be, “watered down and a little tired.”
“We found we needed to refresh and rethink how we were addressing bullying and diversity,” she said.
“The conversation was the starting point for our renewed efforts to improve anti-bullying curriculum and a more caring atmosphere within our schools,” Shipley added.
The Rachel’s Challenge program, based on the life and writings of Rachel Joy Scott, the first victim of the Columbine school shooting, aims to replace acts of violence, bullying, and negativity with acts of respect, kindness, and compassion and, in turn, to promote a safer, more connected school community. Shipley said district officials attended a workshop at another local district in hopes of bringing the program to Mars.
“The results were phenomenal and we knew we wanted to make this a focus for our school year next year,” he said. “We booked their founder to do a keynote to our staff at the opening of in-service next year. We also scheduled student and parent workshops for September.”
Other programs include Dr. Christine Herring of Herring Seminars & Consultants, who will present an “Engaging in Uncomfortable Conversations About Race & Ethnicity” workshop for a core group of student leaders at the high school May 24. Ferguson said district officials wanted to get a head start and gain a better understanding of the school’s climate before next school year.
As part of the new programming, Shipley will be meeting with students as part of a building-level roundtable lunch series to discuss the school climate, and to get feedback from students on how to improve issues in the schools. He said he hopes the conversations can be open and honest, and that students feel safe in sharing their concerns.
“I want the students to feel heard and for those who feel like their words have not been acted upon in the past, that they have an administrative team dedicated to action,” he said. “We need to build trust with the students and families that we are listening and responding to their concerns. They need the security that their concerns are being dealt with.”