In January 2014, Adventist educator and school counselor Mindy Salyers approached me with a proposal: “Would you like to provide Olweus Bullying Prevention training for all your schools across Minnesota?” She then described a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to partner with the Center for Conflict Resolution operating from La Sierra University at Riverside, California, to receive training and extensive supplies for each school made possible by a grant from Versacare, Inc., a lay-Adventist foundation working in cooperation with Adventist Risk Management.

I had previously read about the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program in Adventist Review. I remember trying to be cool and deliberate while listening to Mindy, but then found myself saying, “Of course! How do we get started?” At the February Teachers’ Inservice training we brought a proposal to the teachers who would be implementing the program.

After receiving their collective response (“This is a no-brainer!”) we began to lay plans for intensive two-day training sessions in four locations across the state of Minnesota. Teachers were encouraged to bring a team of constituents and parents to serve as members of each school’s Bullying Prevention Coordinating Committee. Even though attendance at the August training sessions was expected of educators, I was thrilled to see lay people using vacation time to attend the training seminars.

With grace and dignity

Salyers quickly won people over with her compassionate approach to this sensitive topic. As our trainer, she modeled traits being advocated in the Olweus program: grace and dignity. Workshop attendees were led to relive times as children when they felt bullied, neglected or on the outside looking in, and tears evidenced the pain they felt. With no one wanting this trauma repeated for today’s children, attention was guaranteed for the full two days of training.

Following training, Mindy regularly consulted with each school. She found something to affirm in their initial efforts, and encouraged them toward further program implementation.

In the end every school was prepared to launch a kick-off event. Leaders at Stone Ridge SDA Christian School in Duluth chose the theme Stop Bullying Now! and introduced the program to students and their families with a corn roast on the school grounds. Students also hand-printed their own T-shirts and created a video clip to share with church members. When parents from two families in the community heard about the program and how it was being integrated into the curriculum, it became a significant factor in their decisions to transfer their children to Stone Ridge.

Minnetonka Christian Academy implemented a SuperFriends theme. John Nicholson, a local lacrosse referee, demonstrated the use of protective gear to students, thus inaugurating a catch phrase: “When the big bad bully comes near, I’ll be wearing my SuperFriends gear.” Spirit Week activities included dressing for careers of helpfulness, such as nursing and veterinary medicine.

One year’s impact

Throughout the 2014-15 school year, students in Minnesota’s K-12 schools have been systematically taught to recognize bullying, and to become defenders of the victims rather than casual bystanders. While the first topics of the class meetings cover bullying, they move on to discuss aspects of friendships and other relationships by inviting students to learn about each other. Giving students time on a regular basis to listen to each other develops qualities of tolerance, respect and love. These features of the program deter bullying and other negative behaviors that detract from learning and interfere with spiritual development. Consequent to the class meetings, Principal Rayleen Hansen of Southview Christian School in Burnsville noted a decrease in student behavioral issues and an increase in parental support. Duluth teacher Rudy Carlson (pictured above) commented, “This is the best behavioral modification program I’ve ever seen. The Olweus program is relevant and enduring. It’s been great to see our kids ‘self-correct’ their attitudes on the playground as well as in the classroom. I plan to make the Olweus program a permanent fixture here at Stone Ridge. Who wouldn’t? It makes my job a whole lot easier!”

Leading the way

With state legislation requiring Minnesota public schools to have anti-bullying programs in place, but only suggesting such for private schools, Minnesota K-12 Adventist Education is the first private school system within the state to make a comprehensive effort toward the eradication of bullying. This initiative was highlighted in the western Metro communities’ Sun Sailor News (2/27/15).

Minnesota is also first in the North American Division to implement the Olweus program conference wide. In gratitude for the magnitude of such a gift to our schools, I wrote to Dr. Richard Pershing, director of the Center for Conflict Resolution: “School morale seems to be way ahead of where it was. I’m hearing reports of children modifying their words and actions to be kinder and gentler, and I am more than pleased…We are hopeful that these students will grow into adults who recognize the difference between ‘soft answers that turn away wrath’ and words that incite anger and resentment. Churches and work places will ultimately benefit from the skills and attitudes these children are developing.”

Pershing replied: “You are the first person to spontaneously recognize what the Center is here to do. We had to start with the schools because they are the lifeblood of our Adventist community of faith. The Center is now presenting sessions on conflict resolution for pastors at the NAD ministerial conference in Austin and they are working with the HMS Richards Divinity School at La Sierra University to have conflict resolution course work included in the MDiv/MA programs, just as we now have an emphasis in conflict resolution available in the MBA program offered through the Zapara School of Business. We will be introducing pastors to the offering from the Center to put on conflict resolution seminars for their congregations and for conference leadership teams.”

In Minnesota we are thankful to Mindy Salyers and to the Center for Conflict Resolution for the reminder to engage in kinder and gentler Christian behavior whether we are elementary-aged or a little older.

This article was also published in the July/August 2015 print edition of OUTLOOK. It was written by Constance McCormick, superintendent of education for the Minnesota Conference.