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When Safety is an Issue

Lilly Zarr, 8, stands with her mother Katrina as Katrina’s son David, 2, and fiancee Randy Taylor eat dinner at their home in West Lebanon. Katrina Zarr told police that her daughter was bullied by another student, prompting a police inquiry. (Valley News - Ryan Dorgan)

Lilly Zarr, 8, stands with her mother Katrina as Katrina’s son David, 2, and fiancee Randy Taylor eat dinner at their home in West Lebanon. Katrina Zarr told police that her daughter was bullied by another student, prompting a police inquiry. (Valley News - Ryan Dorgan) Purchase photo reprints »

That violence is an issue faced by schools comes as no surprise. But among 8-year-olds?

That’s the case for a pair of third-graders at Mt. Lebanon School, where a girl’s mother reported her daughter was bullied this fall by a male classmate with whom she had an antagonistic relationship. School officials, citing privacy concerns, decline to talk about what happened. But the incident nonetheless sheds a light on how schools handle violence among students, and how one parent responded.

Unlike most cases of schoolyard bullying, the one that occurred at Mt. Lebanon also drew a brief investigation by police after they were contacted by the mother of the girl. The investigation was triggered when Katrina Zarr, parent of a third-grader at Mt. Lebanon School, called Lebanon Police to report an incident in which her daughter was knocked down and kicked by a classmate at the end of the school day in October.

Ultimately, the police determined the matter did not amount to a prosecutorial offense or warrant further police involvement.

Before and after police became involved, however, Mt. Lebanon teachers and administrators handled the incident much as schools typically address conflicts among young children. The alleged aggressor was banned from riding the bus and suspended from school for a day, and the school developed a safety plan for both children to help them avoid further conflict, according to a police report on the incident.

In addition to calling the police, Zarr brought the incident to the attention of the Valley News. She said her daughter, Lilly Zarr, still doesn’t feel safe at school, and she kept her home for a couple of days after the incident.

“My concern as a parent is now how they’re dealing with this,” Zarr said.

Of all the issues schools deal with — high stakes testing, providing lunch and often breakfast, furnishing counseling, special education and other services — school safety is one of the most basic and all-encompassing. There are competing objectives — disciplining aggressive students while not stigmatizing them, counseling victims while ensuring they know how to respond properly to being taunted and understand their own roles in the dynamic — that aren’t easy to balance.

Because both children involved in the Mt. Lebanon School incident are so young, school Principal Michael Foxall declined to discuss it — indeed, even to acknowledge that an incident had occurred. But he addressed in general terms about what the school does to provide a safe environment and to teach children to resolve their differences without resorting to physical confrontation.

“This is obviously a priority,” he said. “I believe that even more basically, we have to be teaching children the skills of living in groups and living within group norms.”

The Police Account

The police report, from which the children’s names were redacted, gives the following account of the incident involving Zarr’s daughter:

Katrina Zarr called Lebanon police at around 3 p.m. on Oct. 16. She told Officer Nicholas Alden that her daughter had been “hit in the face, pushed down, and kicked in the side by a boy,” and that “the teachers did nothing about the incident and she wanted to know who to document the incident with.” Alden ascertained the boy’s first name and learned that Zarr’s daughter did not need medical attention.

Alden spoke with Gregory Parthum, Lebanon’s school resource officer, who identified the boy. Alden called and talked to the boy’s mother, who said that he has an aide assigned “to help him use his words and not his hands.” She said Zarr’s daughter had antagonized the boy and that “the two do not get along.” She also said she had spoken with the principal and the teachers involved.

Alden filed his report, finding no evidence of criminal wrongdoing and took no further action.

Parthum also filed a brief report, outlining his assistance to Alden and a conversation with Foxall on Oct. 17.

“Foxall indicated he was made aware of the fight at the time by the teachers who responded,” Parthum wrote. “He stated both students were well-known to school staff, and neither student got along with the other. ... He stated he did not notify me at the time because it was not a major incident.”

Foxall described Mt. Lebanon School’s program for maintaining proper student conduct, called Responsive Classroom. It sets out the following basic rules: be safe, cooperative, kind, courteous and respectful of people and materials. The rules are reinforced at weekly assemblies, Foxall said, and the school guidance counselor talks with teachers weekly about students who need help surmounting challenges in the classroom or on the playground, he wrote in his most recent monthly report to the school community.

“Teachers and adults need to work together as a culture,” Foxall said in an interview.

The school provides a sort of social skills toolkit for conflict resolution among students, and those tools are also available for parents. For example, Zarr’s daughter spoke of a school program called “Mean Jean,” which features a character who makes life difficult for her fellow pupils. A student is challenged to make herself into “Superflex,” a character who learns how to be flexible in order to avoid and deflect Mean Jean’s harsh words and actions. Zarr’s daughter said she’s supposed to “walk away” when a conflict escalates.

Children need structure to develop a healthy emotional state — a routine, physical boundaries and clear behavioral limits and consequences for breaking them, said Ben Garber, a child psychologist in Nashua.

“The goal in school or at home or in the community is to make things boring for kids. Boring means that the world is predictable,” said Garber, who was not involved in the Zarr case and spoke generally about how to deal with child-on-child violence.

He noted that when a child acts out or hits a classmate, there needs to be a “calm, assured response every single time.”

Consequences and boundaries can lead to frustration in children, an experience with which they must learn to grapple. Garber said it’s common to see “parents who are primarily invested in making their children happy at the expense of making them healthy.”

By and large, Foxall said, Mt. Lebanon has been successful at maintaining a healthy emotional climate. “It really works. For most of the time, most of our kids are on task,” he said.

But as much as schools seek to foster good social behavior, conflict is inevitable.

“It’s one thing to say ‘No bullying,’ ” Foxall said, “but that’s like saying ‘No human nature allowed.’ ”

The Law

New Hampshire has been a leader in passing new laws to combat bullying. In addition to the safe school zone law, approved in 1994 and updated in 2000, a stringent anti-bullying law went into effect in 2010.

Prior to the new law, bullying was treated as a pattern of behavior, Foxall said. Now, any single significant act can be considered bullying. Under the law, N.H. RSA 193-F, administrators must investigate any incident in which a child reports being bullied and must report to the parents of both the victim and the alleged perpetrator within 48 hours of the incident report. Schools must have written procedures for investigating bullying and reporting all substantiated incidents to the superintendent.

A separate New Hampshire law governing school safety, RSA 193-D, provides for police investigations of documented acts of “theft, destruction or violence” within a safe school zone. That could include an assault on one student by another. RSA 193-D says anyone who commits such an act “may be subject to an extended term of imprisonment.”

The new law has created a problem of its own, Foxall said. Eight is an early age at which to label a child, and it is not always easy to determine who’s at fault when young children are in conflict. As a society, Foxall noted, “We’re (overly) comfortable with labelling somebody a bully.”

In interviews, Katrina Zarr acknowledged that her daughter “kind of antagonized (the boy) a little bit.” Efforts by the Valley News to determine the boy’s identity and talk to his parents were unsuccessful. Zarr didn’t know the boy’s last name, and Foxall and Lebanon police declined to identify anyone involved.

Lebanon police also seemed uncomfortable with the idea of investigating the behavior of third-graders.

“You’re dealing with children who are below an age where they could be charged,” Capt. Tim Cohen said in an interview. “It’s such an ‘it depends’ situation,” he added.

Elementary school violence, Cohen said, “is not something that sticks out to me as an ongoing prevalent problem.” Statistics compiled by Lebanon police show that there were three assaults and 11 confirmed incidents of “threatening/harassment” in the 2010-11 school year, the latest for which data is available, that resulted in complete police investigations.

(Such investigations are more thorough and more likely to lead to charges than the sort of brief inquiries police make into incidents such as the one at Mt. Lebanon School. Cohen said his department keeps records of all incidents, but does not include in its annual reports incidents that result in cursory investigations.)

Recently, Zarr said she went back and talked to the principal. “He said that we don’t think this incident will happen again,” she said. “I’m still super concerned.” She doesn’t want her daughter’s education jeopardized, but doesn’t want to put her in harm’s way, either, she said.

At the moment, “she seems to do OK,” Zarr said. “I think she feels OK as long as her safety isn’t threatened.”

The question remains: How much can a school do to make sure every child not only is safe, but feels safe?

At Mt. Lebanon, the focus has been and will likely remain on the social and emotional aspects of education about which Foxall wrote to parents last month.

“We believe lasting positive behavioral changes come about most effectively through learning.”

For more information:

www.responsiveclassroom.org

Dr. Ben Garber, healthyparent.com

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.