Encouraging kindness: QC school district developing anti-bullying campaign

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Brianna Griffith, center, and her best friends — Calli Pearce, left, and Sierra Sutton, right — laugh and joke around like typical 12-year-olds when they’re together. Calli and Sierra are fiercely protective of their friend, who suffers from alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss on her scalp. When Brianna came home from school crying on multiple occasions after being called names by classmates, her parents took the matter to the Queen Creek Unified School District Governing Board. Now the family is working with the school district and administrators from Queen Creek Middle School, where Brianna is a seventh-grade student, to implement an anti-bullying/be kind campaign.

A Queen Creek family’s struggle to deal with harsh comments and name-calling has prompted school officials to take a proactive approach to discourage bullying.

The Queen Creek Unified School District is developing a new anti-bullying/be kind campaign after Mike and Meredith Griffith addressed the school district governing board Nov. 1.

Pleading with the board members to take action against school bullies, his wife too choked up to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting, Mr. Griffith told the board his daughter, Brianna, had come home two times in October crying. He said both times students riding the bus had said mean things to the 12-year-old because she suffers from alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss on her scalp.

It cannot be cured, according to the American Academy of Dermatology website: www.aad.org.

“On Wednesday, a child on the bus told her her face was so ugly she wanted to use it as a Halloween mask. The next day, the kids were saying, ‘Your head is so bald I could see my reflection,’” Mr. Griffith said to the board on the meeting video.

Governing board meeting videos can be viewed online by visiting http://www.qcusd.org/Governing_Board and clicking on the “Watch Our Governing Board Meeting” link on the right-hand side of the page. The video of the Nov. 1 meeting where the Griffiths addressed the board has been viewed more 1,700 times as of Nov. 17. In comparison, the video of the Oct. 18 meeting has been viewed 440 times while the Sept. 20 meeting has been viewed 291 times.
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Mr. Griffith said his daughter had been bullied other times as well.

He told the governing board he had contacted Joseph McKnight, principal at Queen Creek Middle School, 20435 S. Old Ellsworth Road, where Brianna is a seventh-grade student, and Vice Principal Beverly Nichols, but nothing had been done to address the matter.

“… I’m here to address bullying going on in the schools and ask for help in putting an end to it,” Mr. Griffith said.

During an interview at their home, the Griffiths expressed their frustration Queen Creek Middle School administrators did not immediately contact the bullies and address the matter.

Hearing the insults hurt her feelings and made her feel sad, Brianna said during an interview. Stress makes her hair fall out more quickly, she said.

Ignoring rude comments doesn’t help much, Brianna said, but she is fortunate to have a solid support group of friends and family. She called her brother, Jayden, 7, her “little rock.”

She has been a member of the AZ Fusion cheer club since she was in kindergarten, she said.

“They’re very supportive. They stand up for their cheerleaders,” Mr. Griffith said.

Her best friends, Calli Pearce and Sierra Sutton, protect her, sometimes physically putting themselves between her and her verbal attackers, she said.
“She can’t help what she has. It’s nothing she can change,” Calli said during an interview.

Sierra said she and Calli witnessed the taunts Brianna received on the bus. She said a random kid started making fun of their friend.

“When I see people make fun of Brianna I ask them, ‘How would you feel if you had it?,’” Sierra said during an interview.

Sometimes the girls say it’s just best to ignore the comments.

“There was a kid who told Brianna she needed to get new hair. We just left it there. We didn’t want to make it worse,” Sierra said.

Mrs. Griffith said it took several days for Ms. Nichols to speak to the students who ride the bus with Brianna. She said after her husband spoke at the governing board meeting and a local television station aired the Griffiths’ story, Mr. McKnight called the family and said he would organize an assembly to address bullying.

The Griffiths met with Mr. McKnight and the idea of developing an anti-bullying/be kind campaign began to take shape. It would take a proactive approach to the issue. In addition to implementing the policies the school has in place to deal with bullying as incidents occur, it would encourage year-round that students be nicer and kinder to each other, Mrs. Griffith said.

Ideas for the campaign include bringing in speakers and including students in the planning and decision-making process, she said.

“We don’t want to take a one-and-done approach,” she said. “Ours and the school’s goal is to change the culture of the school. I’m happy the change is going to happen.”
Mr. McKnight said school officials attempted to deal with the Griffiths’ request as quickly as they could.

“I can completely appreciate where they’re coming from. They wanted immediate action,” he said during a phone interview.

He said Ms. Nichols was going to speak to the bus riders on the Friday after the students’ comments occurred, but the bus left early, before she could get there. He said she spoke to the bus riders the following Tuesday.

“We asked the kids if there had been a camera on the bus and we showed it to their parents, would their parents be proud of the way they acted?,” Mr. McKnight said.
The principal said he hopes the new anti-bullying/be kind campaign will elevate students to a higher community where students are nicer to one another. He said he also hopes it will empower students to step up and be proud to say bullying doesn’t happen at their school.

“My goal and (the Griffiths’) goal is to make this more of a cultural component of our school and to incorporate a positive change and random acts of kindness on a regular basis,” Mr. McKnight said.

He said they are still working out details of the campaign, determining what will be the most effective for the middle school. He said he hoped to have some elements of the campaign in place by the start of the second semester of this school year.

What is bullying?

Using the school district’s definition, the students’ harsh comments toward Brianna are not examples of bullying. According to a flier posted on the school district website (www.qcusd.org), bullying involves repeated negative actions. It is purposeful, with the threat of inflicting physical or emotional harm. There is no remorse and there is no effort to solve the problem.

Occasional name-calling and rude behavior are considered conflict situations, according to the flier.

The school has a policy to immediately address both bullying and conflict situations, Mr. McKnight said.

“Students who are middle school age and younger don’t realize what they’re doing. They may understand some decisions were not nice but don’t see it for the harm it can do,” he said.

Kathi Bishop is director of the Biblical Counseling of Arizona. Her organization has seven counselors who work with students of all ages, from elementary to high school, in Queen Creek, she said during a phone interview.

Using kindness is the best way to diffuse a potentially harmful situation, she said.

“Respond with kindness. Walk away. Don’t stand there and accept the abuse,” Ms. Bishop said during a phone interview. “Bravery means standing up for yourself but not responding in the way you’ve been treated, Bravery also means telling someone who matters and can make a difference. In middle school, that’s an adult, a teacher or a playground attendant.”

Junior high students have the hardest time, she said.

“From our particular counseling group, junior high is a target time,” Ms. Bishop said. “The children don’t understand what their identity is. Many times they’re trying to be like someone or better than someone. It’s a complicated time in their lives.”

Town policies

Youngsters are not the only victims of bullying. The town of Queen Creek is reviewing its policies on the issue in its employee handbook, Assistant Town Manager Bruce Gardner told members of the Queen Creek Town Council during their regular meeting on Nov. 16.

The review was not prompted by a specific incident, Mr. Gardner said during a phone interview. He said the town’s employee handbook was looked at between January and May as part of a doctoral project for students in the Grand Canyon University organizational development and psychology program.

Mr. Gardner, who has a background in human resources, said he had asked program participants to focus on the bullying portion of the handbook. He said their response was the handbook needed to be more specific when referring to how to deal with incidents.

“Bullying isn’t anything new, but how schools, organizations and workplaces are starting to use that term in their procedures is. We’re now being more specific about what bullying is and is not.” Mr. Gardner said. “We need to be better prepared to respond no matter who you are. We need to treat others with kindness as the schools are doing.”

Change is starting

Queen Creek Middle School’s efforts so far to deal with bullying are yielding some positive results, Mrs. Griffith said.

“Some of the attention has started conversations about being nice. Brianna has received notes from kids she doesn’t know that say, ‘You’re beautiful,’” Mrs. Griffith said.

Mr. McKnight also sees good things coming from the campaign, even in its infancy.

“I’m disappointed (the Griffiths) felt they weren’t getting anywhere, but it’s something that has allowed them to be part of the change. With the community behind us to make a true cultural change,” Mr. McKnight said. “It’s not OK to walk up and be mean to someone. It’s not OK.”

Mr. McKnight said he welcomes input from the community about the anti-bullying/be kind campaign. People may contact him by calling 480-987-5940 or e-mailing him at jmcknight@qcusd.org.

News Editor Wendy Miller can be contacted at 480-982-7799 and via e-mail at qcnews@newszap.com, or follow her on Twitter @WendyNewszap123. Be sure to like us at www.facebook.com/Queen Creek/San Tan Valley Independent.

News Editor Wendy Miller can be contacted at 480-982-7799 and via e-mail at qcnews@newszap.com, or follow her on Twitter @WendyNewszap123.

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