NORTH SMITHFIELD – From a series aimed at educating teachers on how to help students manage emotions, to activities and challenges that show kids how to be inclusive, the North Smithfield School District has implemented a comprehensive plan to reduce bullying and create a safe and welcoming environment, according to Supt. Michael St. Jean.
The district had only five reported instances of bullying in the first semester, according to data reported to the state this year, including two at the middle school, and three at the high school.
But St. Jean noted that the figures don’t tell the whole story.
“Things happen every day at our schools, but they don’t necessarily fall under the definition of bullying, which is generally repeatedly behavior,” said St. Jean. “Usually, it’s pervasive. It’s aggressive.”
“Yes, we do have students who have real emotional problems,” said St. Jean. “Our job is to help them form these positive relationships. What we can do is create the schools as a safe place for everyone, where that kind of behavior isn’t tolerated.”
The superintendent presented a long list of programs documenting how North Smithfield schools are working to address social/emotional issues at a school committee meeting last week.
They include a partnership with NE Base Camp, a year-long series where every teacher takes classes as part of professional development, and Kelso’s Choice, set times where social workers work with teachers to implement conflict resolution programs.
“It’s basically to help children and adults understand and manage emotions, set positive goals, and understand and feel empathy for others,” he said.
Within each school, he said, there are also age-appropriate initiatives.
At North Smithfield Elementary School, programs include Five High Fridays, where members of the North Smithfield Fire Department give students high-fives as they walk into school, and the Getting to Know You Cafe, where students have lunch with either principal, assistant principal, school counselor, social worker or psychologist.
In addition to weekly social service meetings, the schools also have specific weeks with activities for students, including Start With Hello Week in fall and The Great Kindness Challenge in winter.
“There are a lot of things to create this very positive, supportive environment for students,” said St. Jean, noting that the district also aims to give students tools to deescalate and mediate conflict.
Many of the same programs are used at the middle school and high school at a higher level, with a focus on things such as enabling bystanders, and building relationships with school resource officers.
“Our SROs are very involved with students,” said St. Jean, noting that creating safe and supportive schools is a pillar of the district’s strategic plan. “We’re always working toward this.”
Next year, the district will also offer a grant-funded three-part series for teachers based on the book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.
“We found that it was a very powerful book,” explained Asst. Supt. Clare Arnold.
School Committee member Jean Meo noted that there’s still more work to be done.
“There is a lot that’s being done within schools,” said Meo. “However, I personally think that there are still problems, and I think that we are naive if we think that there are not.”
“I’m not sure that bullying is the right word,” Meo said, pointing to lack of empathy, kindness and inclusion. “It’s an issue that can’t only be involved through the schools. I think we have to involve parents. We have to reach out to parents.”
St. Jean noted workshops with parents are also part of the ongoing plan.
“We’re not in denial,” said St. Jean. “We are creating a good, positive place to model behavior.”
Meo, who serves on the district’s Wellness Committee, said parent outreach is going to be one of the group’s focuses this year.
“Good things are happening,” Meo said.