School officials put anti-bullying program on hold to check into safety issues

Naples Daily News, Florida/January 26, 2006
By Katherine Lewis

A controversial program that seeks to stop bullying and create acceptance in schools will not be held in Collier County public schools until the district completes its own review of the program.

After hearing reasons why it should continue and be discontinued in the school, the Collier County School Board has asked Schools Superintendent Ray Baker to review the Challenge Day program, which came to Collier County last year.

The move came after Dr. Frank Schwerin went to the board recently, concerned about the program, which seeks to tear down walls within schools and urges acceptance.

"I ask that you prohibit Challenge Day at any school pending a safety check. And I urge you to check other school districts like Seattle, which have asked the program not to return," he said. "If it harms one child, is it worth it?"

A majority of the board members took Challenge Day officials to task over the program, which was held in Collier County over four days in November and December.

Board Vice Chairman Steven Donovan said the program should have been brought before the board for review before going into the schools.

"We review reading programs before we put them in the district. We didn't review this. It makes me wonder why you didn't bring it to us first," he said. "We will be the ones who will be responsible if something happens."

Donovan said while he was sure Challenge Day organizers meant well, he was troubled by some of the questions he heard were being asked of students.

Dede Poeltl and Joyce Jacobs, who organized Collier County's Challenge Day programs, spoke of the positive feedback they had from students, parents and school officials over the program. They argued that the program, which has been performed around the country and in three other Florida school districts, has made great strides in creating safer, more positive school environments.

Jacobs said the principals at each of the three schools where Challenge Day was held - Golden Gate High School, Immokalee High School and The Community School of Naples - had to approve the program's coming to the school.

"They saw a need in their school," she said.

Baker said he supported the principals' decision to bring the program to the schools.

"They would not put students in harm's way," he said. "But I agree that if this is going to be a districtwide program, it is the responsibility of the superintendent to look at it and bring it to the board for review."

The Challenge Day program is run not by the adults, but by older students who have chosen to "Be the Change." That means they lead the discussions and act as examples for the Challenge Day movement. They impress their knowledge on between 75 and 100 freshmen. The hope is that, as the freshmen go through high school, they will "Be the Change" for other students.

The highlight of the program was a game called "Crossing the Line." All of the participants stand on one side of a room. When one of the leaders reads a statement, participants are asked to cross the line to the other side of the room if the statement applies to them.

The statements run from "Cross the line if you are a woman" and "Cross the line if you have ever lost a member of your immediate family or a close friend" to "Cross the line if gunshots are a part of your everyday life" and "Cross the line if you have ever teased, belittled or hurt someone because you were jealous."

The purpose of the exercise, which is performed in silence, is to teach the participants about oppression and that everyone is in a minority.

But board member Linda Abbott said one of the problems with the program is that it is asking children to take on this responsibility with a delicate situation. She talked of a student who was a facilitator and spoke about the girls who had crossed the line when asked if they had been teased because they were overweight.

"That was a student, a young man, a teenager, a child and he went back to his school and did something this program is trying to prevent," she said. "I think this is bordering on the edge of dangerous and it doesn't have a place in school."

Board member Pat Carroll, who was the only member of the board to attend a Challenge Day, asked her fellow board members to keep an open mind.

"I ask that you not judge this until you experience it. What you are hearing is not what I experienced. I thought it was a well-thought-out program," she said. "I saw the change in the students. It was amazing the way these students connected with each other, with their parents."

Carroll said she thought it was a program some students needed to have. She stressed that students had to get parent permission before participating in the program.

Board Chair Kathleen Curatolo said she thought the principals should be allowed to make site-based decisions for the school. Although she stressed that she would not support one side or the other, she added that programs such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters elicit help from volunteers who are not professionals, but those people still make a difference.

Board member Dick Bruce was the most vocal about keeping the program out of the schools.

"The Collier County Public School System is not the proper venue for this type of program. While we have some children in our schools with problems, we have a responsibility to protect those children," he said. "We have a captive audience in our children and we need to be introspective in what we expose those children to."

Although the Challenge Day organizers are precluded from holding another Challenge Day in the Collier County public schools until a review has been completed, it cannot keep them from holding another Challenge Day at The Community School of Naples, which is a private school and is not under the jurisdiction of the Collier County School Board.

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