The choking case was at a school with anti-bullying coach
By CLIFF PFENNING, The Portland Observer
When a case of bullying that involved a second grader being choked during recess at Woodlawn Elementary in northeast Portland reached the local news this month, Matt Ferro said he was surprised that he hadn’t heard about it.
Ferro helps monitor the Woodlawn playground during lunch breaks as a coach for Playworks, a non-profit that teaches kids how to play together and resolve their differences without resorting to fighting.
“I’m out there every day and kids find me with the littlest of problems, so it was unusual that I didn’t learn of it until then,” Ferro, who’s been at the school for the past 14 months, said last week. “I’ve seen a big difference in the way kids settle their differences on the playground in the time I’ve been at the school, so what happened did seem a little unusual when I heard about it.
“But this is a tough area with a lot of poverty, and bullying does go on. There’s plenty of kids here who know that if someone says something bad about their name or their family, they’ve got their parents’ permission to hit them.”
The alleged incident at Woodlawn involved an eight-year-old getting held down by one student and choked by another with a rope. The incident left scars on his neck that were captured by a local television news photographer and then broadcast to the world.
Portland Public Schools is investigating and has not offered any comment.
The incident also took place during a week in which President Barack Obama was addressing the problem of bullying.
A survey conducted by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department in 2009 found that more than one third of teens reported being bullied and that two thirds of those incidents happened at school.
Playworks, based in Oakland, Calif., has found a niche in promoting positive solutions through simple games, such as Four Square, to help teach kids how to play together and resolve their differences peacefully.
In just three years, the program has expanded in Portland from eight to 14 elementary schools, and has a waiting list of seven schools, including four in the Parkrose district.
“Our program is getting great reviews from schools and that’s causing the demand from other schools,” says Jonathan Blasher, Portland Playworks executive director. “One thing that’s very helpful is that we work with each school to find the ways to be most useful. If a school has a lot of Somali kids, we try to find a coach who can speak Somali. Schools have limited resources and we try to be as useful as possible to assist each school.”
The Playworks program begins with a full-time coach, whose role might be defined as an assistant gym teacher. Rather than monitor a gym class, the Playworks coach teaches basic games and conflict resolution skills to individual classes on a regular basis, usually every two weeks.
The Playworks coach also helps supervise lunch recess.
The program is paid for through fundraising at each school and through Playworks grants.
For his time working at Woodlawn, Ferro said he has observed an improvement in student harmony during recess.
“Last year, it would take a long time for the kids to start a game like kickball because they had trouble just making teams,” he said. “First, you have to have captains, and then they have trouble figuring out which friends are going to be on which team, and before you know it recess is over.
“Now, those games get started faster because either an adult makes the teams or they just count 1-2-1-2 and each kid goes to his team and they play.”
David Flores, a fifth-grader at Beach Elementary in north Portland, sees the value of the games.
He was among the dozens of students who volunteered to become a junior coach during a conference Friday at Rigler Elementary in northeast Portland where they learned more games and bonded with kids from other schools.
Flores said one thing he learned was to feel comfortable with speaking up.
“I learned to talk more to people,” he said. “I learned to talk about myself, too.”
In the 2009 survey, only a third of students who’d been the victim of bullying reported the incident to someone.
Ferro said that while not learning of the alleged incident at Woodlawn directly was disappointing, the progress he can see at the school is inspiring and will continue as students, teachers and administrators learn to utilize his program.
“There’s a lot of focus on test scores these days, and it’s easy to forget about the impact recess has on learning,” he says. “When kids don’t get to play much, they get frustrated and they take that into the classroom with them. When they get to play, they can work that energy out and they sit down ready to learn. That’s a much better learning environment.”