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October 26, 2012

Program touts heroes over bullies

JACKSONVILLE —

Bullying situations become fewer when youths understand they can act in a more positive way that builds community “through thoughtful, respectful treatment of one another (and) oneself,” said a local resident who developed a popular nation-wide bully prevention program.

“'Heroes help, bullies hurt' is our simple academic language that can be used to teach and correct would-be bullies,” said The Character Network creator Jim Lord. “No kid really wants to be considered a bully, but unless someone takes the time to help him understand the concept, he can walk straight into the role without realizing it.”

Using characters who model heroic traits, youths learn to replace negative behavior with positive and begin to identify and speak up against bullying behavior.

Nichols Intermediate School Counselor Carrie Mauldin said that this year, based upon “the progress the students have made so far (through) identifying good character traits in one another and helping one another, we anticipate bullying (behavior) to decrease significantly” at the 5th and 6th grade program.

The school's approach consists of  “character” visits to the different classes and a guidance lesson by Mauldin every six weeks, combined with Lord's “Heroes and Bullies” audio messages played over the school intercom. Then there's the black “Bully Band,” a bracelet students wear as a sign of unity against bullying behavior, she said.

“We want the kids to really take note of what exactly bullying behaviors include,” Mauldin added. “Kids learn by repetition and constant reinforcement from their teachers and (administrators).”

The seeds for the bully prevention program were planted when Lord, a Shreveport native, began writing observations about the choices that youth he worked with had faced. These gradually became the basis of a book, “What I Know Now and Wish I Knew Then.”

A friend who had read the book told Lord it needed to be shared with the local school system, so in 1989, he approach the director of secondary education of Caddo Parish School in Shreveport with a copy of his writings.

“He looked at me like I had lost my mind, but a month later, he wrote me a letter asking for 4,500 copies of the book,” Lord recalled.

Encouraged, he created an audio version of one-minute segments of the book which aired on a local radio station, and soon a local TV station approached him about producing a video version.

A job offer in 1992 brought him to Jacksonville, where Lord began working for Waller Broadcasting, and his wife Becky started working as a first-grade teacher for the Jacksonville Independent School District.

Several years later, a meeting with John Tyler High School Principal Nathan Hollis of Tyler led to the next phase of the program: “We began talking about character education and soon he was in my car listening to a demo tape of my radio program (and) after hearing four segments, Mr. Hollis reached over and turned off the tape player. I thought, 'Oh no, I've offended this man!' After what seemed several minutes of silence, he said, 'Jim, I've got to have this,'” Lord recalled.

Hollis wanted to broadcast it over the school intercom during morning announcements, and “soon, I was attending principals' meetings all over East Texas, promoting the program,” he said.

When grade-school principals began asking what was available for their students, he and his wife created  The Beginning of a Hero program in 2000.

It featured real-life heroes whose stories were told, individuals whose “motivation, self-discipline, humanitarianism – even difficulties – eventually led to their successes as adult heroes,” Lord said.

The two programs were adopted and promoted by Region VII Education Service Center, and placed in more than 60 East Texas schools. Soon, he said, other regional education service centers across the state began requesting the program.

By 2003, though, “bullying had become forefront in my mind due to severe and horrific bullying of a close family member,” prompting the addition of Bully Alert to the grade school program, he said.

Bullying, Lord explained, occurs when a culture of “that's the way kids are” is embraced, and no steps are taken to show children more positive behaviors when interacting with others.

“One of the sad excuses that we as parents ourselves received in years past when trying to appeal for help in bullying situations was, 'That's just the way kids are,'” he said. “We have talked to a lot of people in our travels who have been met with similar, unsatisfying answers from educators.”

According to thecharacternetwork.org website, Bully Alert and The Beginning of a Hero programs are geared toward students in grades kindergarten through sixth, while “A Reflection of Your Future” (formerly “What I Know Now and Wish I Knew Then”) is for older students.

Lord said the program addresses cyber bullying with students in third through 12th grades, and the subject “is discussed as a literal crime, as well as a potentially devastating thing to do to someone else.”

At present, 560 school in five states have adopted The Character Network programs. Locally, East Side in Jacksonville was the first to adopt the elementary program; now all five of JISD's elementary schools use the program. Elsewhere in the Cherokee County, Bullard, Rusk and New Summerfield elementary schools participate as well.

“I think the anti-bullying lessons and the 'Bully Alert' announcements have made students more aware of bullying behaviors, ways to report bullying situations, as well as becoming a voice to speak for victims,” East Side Principal Holly Searcy said. “This has increased their knowledge on the subject.”

The purpose of the program is simple, Lord said. “To meet the students where they are, (at) whatever stage of life they are in when we first come in contact with them and open their eyes and hearts to a better way of treating others and looking within themselves.”

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