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Patriot Perspective: Bullying prevention underway at PLMS

The Patriot Perspective is a phenomenal tool for our schools to broadcast all the wonderful things that are going on in our community. With the recent negative publicity floating around Minnesota state news regarding bullying, I think it is appropriate to use this segment to inform our community about the positive spin we are taking regarding the topic of bullying and bullying prevention at Pequot Lakes Middle School.

What started as a casual challenge at a staff meeting earlier this fall - asking our entire staff to wear orange on "Unity Day" - has become a significant movement at PLMS. Recognized annually on a Wednesday in October, Unity Day is an event sponsored by PACER, a Minnesota-based organization whose primary mission is enhancing the quality of life and expanding opportunities for children, youth and young adults with all disabilities.

"Orange provides a powerful, visually compelling expression of solidarity," said Paula Goldberg, executive director of PACER Center. "When hundreds of individuals in a school or organization wear orange, the vibrant statement becomes a conversation starter, sending the unified message to kids to know that they are not alone."

Walking into our staff meeting that Wednesday morning we were greeted by a staff where each and every teacher and para was adorning orange. This powerful imagery intensified as our student body flooded the halls that morning. PLMS made a statement about the culture of our building that day.

We also recognize that there is a lot more to battling bullying in our schools than a bunch of adults wearing orange. As the month of October gave way to November, we segued into grade level meetings focused on the proactive prevention of bullying at our school.

Tapping into data provided through national surveys, we challenged each of our 564 Pequot Lakes middle schoolers to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. Data indicates that, nationally, about 1 in 5 students reported being bullied last year, 66 percent of all bullying goes unreported, and only 25 percent of bullying prevention systems at schools effectively reduce bullying (www.pacer.org).

What started as a challenge to our students, with a simple statement and a short video, has now evolved into a larger message that has encompassed our entire building. This message is built upon one hopeful piece of data: that 57 percent of all bullying stops when a peer intervenes.

Continuing with our challenge, our students took part in a viewing of the movie "Wonder" during the first weeks of December. Based on the New York Times best-selling children's book, "Wonder" tells the incredibly inspiring and heartwarming story of August Pullman as he navigates life as a fifth-grader with mandibulofacial dysostosis, an extremely rare medical facial difference.

Some might ask, "Why send middle schoolers to a movie that they could go see on their own?" The outpouring of enthusiasm from students and staff regarding the novel moved us to take the poignant message of this book to a wider PLMS audience. Auggie's situation, wearing the scars of the many surgeries throughout his life, provides a very obvious and superficial dissimilarity that our students can "see."

The challenge facing our teachers is to help our students to see challenges beyond those that are only skin deep. The film represents but a small fragment of a larger message PLMS is delivering: challenging our students to value the difference amongst all of us and to stand up when their classmates deviate from that expectation. Our students were an incredible audience and were very receptive to the true messaging behind the film.

This is more than our school's effort to be in compliance with the Safe and Supportive Schools Act put into place in 2014. It goes beyond middle schoolers creating a "pledge chain" in the hall or filling Sunset Cinema to watch a video about a kid who was "different."

PLMS is committed to creating a safe and collaborative school culture where students feel free to be themselves; to be different, and to model what it means to be a "hero without a cape." There is great momentum going at Pequot Lakes Middle School. We thank our staff for taking a small idea and helping it grow to a larger movement. We appreciate the shared vision of our PTA and their support of PLMS in offsetting half of the costs of this effort.

And most importantly, we thank our students for making the pledge to end bullying. There is no greater antidote to bullying than the steadfast refusal of our student body to tolerate bullying.

A community meeting about our building's efforts to end bullying will be held at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 12, in the high school auditorium. This meeting will be held in conjunction with our grades 5-12 conference night.

Join us in helping to eradicate bullying from our schools and our community.

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