Dealing with a ‘vulnerable’ age

AMHERST – Middle school students learned lessons on empathy with peers, parents and teachers as a part of this year’s Project Safeguard program.

The group of seventh graders from Amherst Middle School attended talks and performances throughout the day recently as a part of the school’s ongoing efforts to encourage caring for others.

Principal Porter Dodge said Project Safeguard is targeted toward the age group for a reason.

“Seventh grade is a very vulnerable and influential age. It’s important we do this,” Dodge said.

Some of the events separated boys and girls for gender-specific performances, such as “Step Up,” an anti-bullying play meant for boys.

“I think it’s really important guys don’t feed into the ‘top dog’ attitude. It’s a really important lesson for them to learn, I hope they take it away with them,” Keith Lewis, an Amherst Middle School special needs teacher, said.

Lewis accompanied students to the performance, hosted at the Souhegan High School auditorium. He said while it’s easy for adults to look back and think about how they could have treated peers better in school, it’s more difficult for students currently in the thick of it to see how their behaviors affect classmates.

The play featured three actors from Deana’s Educational Theater, a Boston-area troupe, playing the part of bully, target and bystander.

The play showed the dynamic of the three characters, including asides directed at the audience to elaborate on how the character is thinking and feeling.

As preventative programs reach out to targets and aggressors alike, schools strive not to alienate either side.

“We try not to use words like ‘bully’ because kids think, ‘that’s not me,’” said Dodge. “Bullying is always part of school culture, we work very hard on that,” he said.

Dodge said the school also participates in a program developed by University of New Hampshire researchers called “Courage to Care.”

The program is a curriculum of nine 45-minute sessions used in middle schools nationwide. The goal is to change the culture of the school to encourage empathy and while discouraging peer victimization.

Dodge said at the middle school, they use positive terminology such as caring and empathy to talk about bullying issues, and to help change the social climate.

“We changed that trend, and have been pretty successful,” he said.

Friday’s Project Safeguard is another avenue to encourage positive behavior.

“(Project Safeguard) has been around a long time, we do it every year. We love it,” Dodge said.

After the Step Up performance, actors asked students about bullying and were met with informed responses from kids.

Students spoke to the difference in power between the bully, target and bystander, and how bystanders have the power to stand up for targets and diffuse a bad situation.

Tim Hoover, who played the target, said sometimes bullies are looking for a laugh, and bystanders can make a difference just by not reacting.

“You guys have that power just by not laughing. It’s the positive side of peer pressure,” he said.

Dodge said the success of Project Safeguard is a tribute to long-time health teacher Gail Hepworth, who organized the program.

“She is retiring, but she’s been involved for 18 years,” he said.

Tina Forbes can be reached at 594-6402, or @Telegraph_tinaf.