At the start of this school year, the state launched a new method for schools to report bullying incidents. A form is used to record the category, location and method of an incident, but Spencer Superintendent Terry Hemann noted it "doesn't tell the story."
"A situation must meet a certain criteria to even be recorded," Hemann said. "And not every situation is even being reported to us."
The nine incidents recorded for the Spencer district occurred in the elementary, middle and high schools.
At a meeting Wedensday afternoon, a task force of school professionals and community members gathered to discuss how the district and community of Spencer can help stop the growing issue of bullying.
At their last meeting, the task force noted four ways to focus attention on stopping bullying:
-Make teens aware that things are being done against bullying
-Empower the "upstander" - an individual who speaks up in support of the victim
-Educate the community with one consolidated message to begin to make a culture shift
-Build student/teacher relationships.
At this meeting, the task force discussed how to apply each of the four ideas within the community, and how the final result would look.
Make teens aware:
Legally, the school is not allowed to disclose discipline information relating to a specific bullying situation, but the task force agreed the students should be aware of the consequences, and the school should continue to follow up on the disciplinary action that is taken.
"Sometimes we get overwhelmed, but we need to make it a part of the regular protocol," Hemann said.
Empower the upstander:
Within the school, the task force discussed creating several outlets for students to let administration know of a bullying situation without peers noticing. Ideas included an email account or a locker for students to drop notes.
Build student/teacher relationships:
"We need to let them know we're here," High School Counselor Eileen Gengler said. "If we can hang out a few minutes after class or school, talk without it seeming like we have to go."
Another idea was creating a "lunch meet" program, where a teacher eats lunch with a group of students.
"We need to be visible as much as possible," Gengler said. "It really makes a difference. The students do notice."
Educate the community:
"Bullying is not just a school issue," Hope Reformed Church Youth Pastor Jay Van Gelder said. "It happens at other events. It's a community issue."
"So much bullying happens naturally that it doesn't even 'look' like bullying," Stephanie Anderson, Johnson Elementary administrator, added.
At the beginning of the meeting, several members of the task force recalled a story on both KTIV and the Today Show about an Iowa City teen who personally combatted bullying by tweeting compliments to his classmates.
"We want to change this message from one that's negative, even against bullying, into one that's positive," Van Gelder said. "There's something inside us that wants the good."
The difficulty with uniting the community, the task force noted, is the diversity within such a large group of people.
"This isn't necessarily even about bullying. It's more about how we treat each other," Hope Reformed Church Children's Ministry Coordinator Kim Smith said. "We need to give everyone a common ground."
The task force discussed generating a community initiative to empower both students and adults to step in when a situation turns negative.
"We've become a nation that's afraid to step in and do the right thing," Smith said. "We justify it with, 'It's not our kid, we don't need to get involved.'"
While some messages will be age- or gender-specific, a lot of the initiative, the task force agreed, will be able to target everyone in the community.
"This is the community to do something like this in," Hemann said. "The support is there."
The initiative will likely branch off of the term "upstander," mentioned first by Sioux City Superintendent Paul Gausman, who spoke at the Governor's summit against bullying in November.
"We're not expecting perfect," Smith said. "We're just expecting people to take responsibility."
"We're in a national decline of people taking responsibility," Spencer Elementary Principal Lucas DeWit added. "We're also in a national spiritual decline. Wherever you stand on that, I think it affects how we treat each other."
While many of the details about the initiative are unknown, the task force agreed that letting the issue dissipate is not an option.
"I want to start doing something," Hemann said.