The awards are part of a legislative effort in the NJ General Assembly to designate the first week of October an official “Week of Respect,” during which schools would be encouraged to present character awards for “helping to prevent harassment, intimidation or bullying; contributing to the creation of a respectful atmosphere in the school; serving as a positive role model for other students; performing community service in the school or community; or demonstrating positive characteristics through art.”
The ceremonies, held on May 24, set a world record, albeit an obscure one, for “most people to receive an award for promoting harmony in the world,” from the Record Holders Republic.
Dan Ward, Director of the Social Studies Program at the Bayonne School District, said the awards should encourage kindness by celebrating small acts along the way. “We’re putting something out there that if you take one step in a positive direction, we can celebrate that,” he said.
The initiative, which launched on Oprah Radio, has its roots in its chairman’s childhood. Sensei John Mirrione (a “sensei” is a martial arts teacher)experienced bullying as a child, learned karate for self-defense, and eventually lost the fight to a schoolyard bully. Physical aggression worked in his exceptional case, because he was no longer bullied, butMirrione now promotes nonviolence and anti-bullying across the state; he is optimistic about the younger generation.
“There is more of an open-mindedness in their generation,” he said. “But what is lacking significantly is the self-belief to project that understanding.”
The younger generation is much less likely to incur Karate Kid scenarios than that in the 1980s, when Mirrione was growing up in Brooklyn (he now lives in Edison, NJ).
Public schools in NJ have reported fewer bullying incidents for the fourth consecutive year, according to the Annual Commissioner’s Report from the NJ Department of Education released in February. A reduction of bullying, harassment, and intimidation was noted in the report. However, self-reported data can be skewed by deviation in schools’ capacity to respond to complaints, as well as variations in the cultures that file them. The laws about how to define bullying and collect data about it have also changed.
An uptick in violence is clear in the report over the same four-year span. In the Bayonne School District, there were 45 reported incidents of violence and 10 reported incidents of harassment, intimidation, and bullying.
“Treating each other nicely leads to better learning.” – Lincoln Community School Principal Keith Makowski
A little recognition
“It’s more important to recognize the positive behavior than the negative,” said Mirrione. “When they are recognized for good, they are encouraged to do more good.”
In the auditoriums of the elementary schools, more than 200 anti-bullying awards were distributed to students who treat others exceptionally well.
“Whether you’re a parent, a coach, an educator of any sort, we all know that even the worst performing child and poorly behaved wants to be recognized when they do good,” said Ward. “What that allows us to do is celebrate those kids, meet them where they’re at, regardless of academic performance or athletic performance.”
Lincoln Community School Principal Keith Makowski, who presented awards to 48 students, said little steps like awards help foster an anti-bullying culture. “You always want to create a positive experience at school,” he said. “Treating each other nicely leads to better learning. And it’s fun for them hearing their name called and knowing that recognition.”
Rory Pasquariello may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.