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Bullying a big problem, even in the Northland

Last year, Lee Oling, a counselor at Cloquet High School, was in his office one morning when a student came to him and reported that another student had a loaded weapon and intended to use it. Within a few minutes, three other students came to hi...

Last year, Lee Oling, a counselor at Cloquet High School, was in his office one morning when a student came to him and reported that another student had a loaded weapon and intended to use it. Within a few minutes, three other students came to him, reporting the same thing.

He told the students to stay in his office, then relayed their concerns to the principal. The police were called but were told not to come to the school using their sirens.

The school officials determined which class the student was in. It turned out he was in a science classroom with a substitute teacher. The class was watching a movie. Oling consulted with the principal, and they decided that Oling would distract the class, then grab the student's hands while the principal came up behind and frisked him.

The plan came off so smoothly and so quickly that the other students did not know what had happened until later. Nevertheless, the principal found the fully loaded pistol in a pouch the student was wearing around his waist.

The student was removed from the classroom, and when Oling asked him if he had intended to use the weapon, the student said that some students had been picking on him, and he was tired of it. If they had picked on him at lunch that day, he would have shot them.

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Until then, the student had never told Oling that he was having a problem.

Oling's experience is every educator's worst nightmare these days. In the wake of the Columbine, Colo., massacre of 1999, when 13 students died, and three dozen other fatal school shootings nationwide in recent years, a hearing on school safety issues was held Saturday, March 6, at the Secondary Technical Center at Central High School.

Co-chairing the meeting were state Rep. Nora Slawik, DFL-Maplewood, and 8th District Congressman James Oberstar. Attending were Duluth area legislators and about 25 other citizens, most of them teachers or school staff members.

Alana Friedman, who is on leave from the Cloquet schools to train other school districts on how to prevent violence, said that bullies are four times more likely to end up in the criminal justice system before age 24 than are other students.

She said that popular students are the most likely to become bullies, and smart students are the most likely to be bullied.

Friedman said that she advocates the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program on three levels. Schoolwide, the administration distributes a confidential questionnaire to students about bullying. She also encourages the formation of a Bullying Prevention Coordinating Committee, training for the staff, schoolwide rules against bullying, parental involvement and the development of a coordinated system of supervision.

She also encourages regular classroom meetings about bullying and peer relations, as well as meetings with parents.

The third level is individual meetings with children who bully.

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Walter Roberts, a professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University-Mankato, offered four ideas on reducing school violence. First, he said, it is important to recognize the personal and social aspects of children's development have a direct bearing on their ability to achieve academically. Second, students' personal and social deficits need to be addressed just as much as core academic curricula. Third, it is important to recognize that children have mental health needs. Fourth, schools need to make sure that intimidating behavior is addressed head-on with clear policies on bullying and teasing.

Taking a different tack, Neena Invalson of Burnsville spoke about the need for uniform 25 mph speed zones around schools. Twenty-eight states already have such zones, but Minnesota does not. Invalson's 14-year-old son, Spencer, was killed several years ago on his way to soccer practice. He was hit by a car driven by a 16-year-old near the school.

Invalson also called for better driver's education, that children need to be taught they are driving a weapon and that only one passenger should be allowed in a car driven by people under age 18.

Carol Herman of Duluth called for reducing the speed limit on Rice Lake Road near Marshall and Lowell schools to no more than 30 mph.

Deb Anderson from Nettleton School in Duluth said that 90 to 95 percent of students are well taken care of, but the remainder come to school without adequate sleep, nutrition and clothing. "These kids are my personal heroes," she said. "Think about how much courage it takes."

Neal Witikko, an English and German teacher at Hermantown High School, said that schools need "strong, consistently enforced discipline policies," supported by a judicial system that has follow-through to help administrators keep the schools safe.

At Hermantown, he said, a "respect retreat" is held for all freshmen. Upper classmen are involved in organizing the retreat. The district also has "hassle laws," he said, and a confidential log on harassment that goes to the principal.

Gayle Kelly, executive director of the Minnesota Head Start Association, of Duluth, asked lawmakers to raise her taxes to beef up counseling programs. "Put my money where I know my investment is going to do some good," she said.

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At the conclusion, the lawmakers reacted to the testimony from the citizens. Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, said that the Legislature itself is guilty of rewarding bullies and intimidators among its own members.

Oberstar said, "Instead of no child left behind, all funding has been left behind." He then went on to criticize the Bush administration on a variety of issues, saying that investment decisions such as increased military spending are wrong.

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