A cluster of 114 fourth-graders pump hands in the air, swing feet and shout. High energy fills the room through laughter, silliness and fun.
But behind it all are lessons of kindness, respect and friendship, combined with a hope that this group will stop bullying before it begins.
The students at Chandler's Tarwater Elementary School took part in activities one day this week with leaders from Minnesota-based Youth Frontiers. This national organization's leaders have visited the school more than a half dozen times in the last few years to direct the fourth- and sixth-graders in retreats about kindness and courage.
Much has been said in the media this year about bullying across the country. From the White House to Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal to classroom teachers, the message is getting out: Bullying is not "just a part of school." It's hurtful and it needs to be stopped.
A 2009 survey of students in Arizona found that 24 percent said they have faced bullying at school. The same report, the Arizona Youth Risk Behavior Survey, found 23 percent said they have been bullied electronically.
So East Valley schools are taking steps toward stopping that trend. From Chandler to Mesa and everywhere in between, dozens of programs and creative ideas are being used.
"It's fun here," said Tarwater student Haley Clausen, 10. Among the lessons she'd already learned Wednesday were, "Be kind. Do not bully. Don't cuss at people."
In fact, the students listed dozens of "actions to ban" at the school, from rumors and pushing people to excluding people, talking behind people's backs and violence.
"A lot of the students are familiar with physical bullying and somewhat familiar with verbal," said Tarwater teacher Melinda Reynolds. "But we want them to be aware of the silent bullying, the ignoring of people, so they can be compassionate."
Reynolds, a 23-year teacher, is concerned about the type of bullying taking place in elementary school. It plays out on the ball field, as students look down on someone not as good as them in sports, or when groups choose not to be nice to someone.
"I remember that in junior high, not elementary schools," she said.
Tarwater principal Jeff Hensley said the lessons of the daylong retreat with Youth Frontiers continue throughout the year with material provided by the organization to the teachers.
"We use the same language," he said of the ongoing conversations. "We are able to do small groups in the classrooms. It certainly has had an impact. I hear kids talking about it."
Stopping bullying on campus is one mission of Mesa principal Tony LaMantia. At Porter Elementary School, LaMantia challenged his students on World Peace Day (Sept. 21) to go 100 consecutive days without a physical fight on campus. The school recently marked the 50-day milestone with a peace parade and celebration.
It's not that there were a lot of fights on campus to begin with, LaMantia said, but some students didn't connect with the message about bullying. This was another way to lead them to the same anti-bullying goal.
"When kids hear about bullying, they separate themselves (by saying), ‘Well, I'm not a bully or I've never been bullied. This doesn't matter to me.' But peace is about everyone," LaMantia said.
"Now, you get the whole culture involved ... I can't tell you the turnaround it's made with all the kids being involved and being excited," he said. "My approach to creating a peaceful campus is feeling comfortable, feeling safe and respecting each other."
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Michelle Reese, East Valley Tribune