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A grassroots effort aimed at new ways of grappling with student bullying in the Santa Ynez Valley is being headed by the Coalition to Promote Inclusion and Equality as well as Santa Ynez Valley Union High School administrators.

According to the 2016 California Healthy Kids Survey, the number of freshmen and juniors at the school who reported being bullied outweighed the average reported for all Santa Barbara County schools combined.

The survey showed that 19 percent of freshmen and 20 percent of juniors at SYVUHS reported being bullied compared to 12 percent in all Santa Barbara County high schools combined.

Dean Palius, People Helping People CEO and a convener of the coalition, said that members of the group began witnessing a change in the community and decided to center their efforts around implementing tolerance to the educational curriculum of school districts in the Santa Ynez Valley.

“In January when this group got together, we got together because we could see the tone had changed for the worst,” he said. “It was a time to put together a movement that can make a cultural change over a number of years here in the valley.”

The Coalition met with members of the Anti-Defamation League of Santa Barbara to discuss possible contributions they can make to primary and secondary school curriculums in the Valley before students funnel into Santa Ynez Valley Union High School.

“We’re concerned with really working with the schools to develop a curriculum from pre-K through high school that would be education about inclusion, equality and respect so that we don’t get to the point where we have bullying incidents,” Palius said.

The concept is to indoctrinate tolerance at the start of their educational paths to counteract the ways of thinking that lead to bullying in the first place.

The coalition is in the planning stages of its educational reform, but Santa Ynez Valley Union High School is also working to halt bullying.

“I think that the events of last spring actually just highlighted that [bullying] for all of us and created that urgency that we need to have to move forward with some increased efforts,” said Principal Mark Swanitz, referring to a student-on-student confrontation that ended up in court.

Since the start of the school year, a counselor provided by People Helping People has mediated four situations on the brink of “going wrong” and they ended amicably with a peaceful resolution, Swanitz said.

As a more formal approach, with help from the UCSB housing division, school administrators and faculty plan to develop a version of restorative justice as a form of discipline at SYVUHS.

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The restorative practice integrates victims and alleged bullies to discuss instances of physical or verbal bullying before they grow into more serious altercations. Also at the table are school administrators, faculty and witnesses.

“Our approach with restorative practice as discipline is that when that [bullying] happens, rather than just focusing on punishment, we’re focusing on repairing that relationship between the victim and the alleged bully,” Swanitz said.

The idea is to protect student welfare and recognize the remorse that bullies may feel after looking back on their actions. If school officials do nothing after learning of an instance of bullying -- even one that occurs off campus -- it has the makings of a violent altercation. The program not only helps victims but also works with bullies to help them change.

Swanitz said that Santa Ynez Union High School plans to get its restorative practices off the ground in January, starting with training its faculty and staff to be moderators for the restorative circles.

Bullying cases can be challenging, especially since a lot of the activity is out of sight of school administrators and learned behavior is tough to break, Swanitz said.

“We would be naïve to say bullying doesn’t exist as a subculture on any high school campus,” he said. “What we really need to do is address bullying not as a norm, but the exception.”