Battling bullies

Expert Steve Wessler to start work with Cd'A school district

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Chair member of the Coeur d' Alene school district board of trustees Tom Hearn speaks at the Human Rights Education Institute Wednesday regarding the upcoming plan to combat bullying in the community.

COEUR d'ALENE - The Coeur d'Alene School District's anti-bullying efforts are getting a big boost, with help from several community partners.

Internationally recognized anti-bullying and discrimination expert Steve Wessler - a former Maine Assistant Attorney General and the former director of the Center for Preventing Hate in Portland, Maine - will be working with the school district, beginning next month, to prepare to institute an anti-bullying program already used in schools in 26 states, Canada, Israel, Palestine, Cairo, Jordan, Northern Ireland, France, Morocco, Greece, Hungary and Kosovo.

The effort is being funded with $16,000 in grants announced Wednesday by the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and Kootenai Electric Trust.

During a press conference at the Human Rights Education Institute, local human rights leader Tony Stewart said plans for the broader anti-bullying initiative began more than a year ago after he spoke with Coeur d'Alene students attending summer school.

"I will never forget what one young man said to me," Stewart said.

That student told Stewart that three years earlier, a classmate committed suicide less than an hour after saying he was being bullied and that he couldn't take it any longer. Stewart said he promised the students that the task force would get involved.

With the blessing of school officials, task force members conducted a national search that led them to Wessler.

Wessler will make several visits to the Lake City over the next few months to analyze the level of bullying now taking place, train school district employees and work with students. "We know that bullying is an issue in our schools," said Superintendent Matt Handelman, noting it is also a problem in communities nationwide. "As educators, we know we play an important role in combating such behaviors. We also know we cannot do it alone."

The Tribe granted $11,000 to the effort.

"We just want to help any way we can," said Tribe Chairman Chief Allan. "We all have kids in the school district, and we love our kids. We just want them to be safe. They can't learn if they're being bullied."

Kootenai Electric Trust donated $2,000 and the task force will pay for the rest of the expenses, an estimated cost of about $3,000.

The school district intensified its anti-bullying efforts last year after several parents complained that their children were being victimized.

A task force was formed and the district is holding regular anti-bullying nights for students and families. The next "Stand Up, Speak Up" event will take place Monday from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Salvation Army Kroc Center, 1765 W. Golf Course Road, Coeur d'Alene.

Bill Rutherford, a school counselor who is now principal of Fernan Elementary, said the anti-bullying gatherings are one of the ways they are working to bridge the gap between the children they're trying to protect, and the older, adult bullies in the community.

Task force member Christie Wood, who is also a Coeur d'Alene Police sergeant, said that's an issue the school resource officers confront regularly.

"A lot of the stuff happens at home and it's modeled behavior," she said.

Rutherford said they hope to create a "universal reporting system" to make it easier for those who witness bullying to do something about it.

"We want to support the bystanders who can speak up for those who can't speak up for themselves," Rutherford said.

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