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Detroit schools look to programs to curb bullying, conflict


As long as there have been schools, there have been school bullies.

But experts say today’s tormentors are more brutal and efficient than ever before.  And that’s left teachers and principals scrambling to figure out how to manage the problem.

In Detroit, training sessions for handling bullies start tomorrow. And the school district has also launched conflict resolution programs to help stop bullying behavior.

"They told me I seemed different"

For Brandon Dowdy, conflict has been a much a part of school life as homework assignments and bad cafeteria food.

“When I was in elementary and these boys came up to me when I was in the lunchroom," Dowdy remembers, "and they had told me that I seemed different, and I was like ‘different how?’ And they was like, ‘it seems like you like boys.’ Then he poured milk on me.”

That was the first of many, many incidents that played out in lunchrooms, classrooms, and playgrounds. And as he got older, the taunts got more vicious.

"I would just sit in the classroom, and people would just shout out ‘oh you fag,’ or ‘you have HIV,’ or ‘you’re going to have AIDS by the time you’re this age,'" Dowdy says.

Unlike a lot of kids who get bullied, Brandon fought back. That got him kicked out of three schools.

Rock, paper, scissors

Brandon’s not alone, and Detroit Public Schools officials know that. So they’ve sunk two and a half million dollars into programs to teach students how to settle conflicts.

One of those programs is run by an organization called Playworks. Its focus is elementary students, and its lessons are taught during recess. Coaches use games to teach fairness, and also to show kids how to settle the arguments that inevitably come up on the playground and in the gym.

Playworks wants kids to settle their squabbles themselves, and do it quickly, so they can get back to playing. So they use an age-old, universal playground strategy: Rock, paper, scissors.

"It has been so much more than I what could have ever imagined," says Bennett Elementary Principal Josette Buendia. "It has made such an impact on this school."

Bennett is one of 18 schools that’s adopted the Playworks model.

Buendia says since the program started in September, she’s seeing fewer kids get sent to the office because of classroom disputes. She says there’s been a lot less retaliation and escalation of conflict. And she says that means teachers are able to get more teaching done.

Buendia says conflict starts to really become a problem at school around the fourth or fifth grade.

"They’re not going to be disrespected, and there’s the whole body language, and," she says, striking a pose suggesting she's not to be messed with, "this kind of thing – a menacing-type posture."

So Buendia says instilling healthy strategies for defusing conflict at a young age is really important.

Help with the dropout problem

Detroit Public Schools now has conflict resolution programs in 138 schools. At the elementary level, many focus on healthy play. The high school programs focus on communication and responsibility.

Officials with the district say the goal is to stop the kinds of behavior that can lead to bullying, and helping kids deal with conflict will ultimately help keep them in school.

"If a child feels they’re not comfortable coming to school because the other kids are picking on them or they’re having constant conflict with other students, they’re going to be less likely to want to come to school, and at some point they will drop out," said Sherry Ulery, chief of academic affairs for the school district.

That point came in the tenth grade for Brandon Dowdy, the young man we met at the beginning of the story. He says he tried to ignore the insults that had become a regular part of his days at school.

"But then if you have seven classes a day, and you go to school five days a week, and there’s like 130 days in school, going through that over and over again it’s like, where does it end?"

So he says, he “clocked out” for about two months. But a social worker got him back on track, and Dowdy will graduate in a few weeks. He found a support group for gay teens outside of school, and says he’s having fewer problems.

Dowdy says he hopes the programs being put in place in Detroit will help make the city’s schools a more comfortable place to grow up and learn.

Sarah Hulett is Michigan Public's Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.