San Bernardino City Unified schools say anti-bullying program has 100% success rate

Ninth grade was tough for MaKayla Keeme-Anweiler.

In 2018, she was a new student at Arroyo Valley High School in San Bernardino. The transition to high school is difficult for many students, but Keeme-Anweiler had been dealing with bullying and mental health challenges for most of her life.

“I had depression. I was paralyzed by it and anxiety,” said Keeme-Anweiler, now 18 and a 2022 Arroyo Valley graduate studying criminology at Victor Valley College. 

Freshman year at Arroyo Valley, Keeme-Anweiler said, a group of girls began mocking her, comparing the way she walked to a robot or a cartoon character, not knowing she has nerve damage in one foot from a car crash she was in when she was 2. The ringleader would even intentionally step on the foot to mock her, Keeme-Anweiler said. 

“I would tell her, you got to tell the teacher, you got to tell somebody,” said Charmain Anweiler, Keeme-Anweilerʼs aunt. On back-to-school night, “I made sure I was there. Any class I went to, I was telling the teachers, ʻLook, thereʼs a girl in this class thatʼs doing this to her.ʼ And those teachers took care of it right away — they removed the girl.”

But the ringleaderʼs friends were still tormenting Keeme-Anweiler. Thatʼs when her counselor intervened, introducing Keeme-Anweiler to a peer-group program originally developed in New Zealand that San Bernardino City Unified has used to fight bullying

According to the district, the program has been used hundreds of times in San Bernardino schools, and it has a 100% success rate.

“We invite the students with the most power, prestige and influence, which also includes the students doing the worst of the bullying,” Marlene Bicondova, the districtʼs director of Positive Youth Development, wrote in an email.

“The influential students are kids who donʼt get bullied, kids who donʼt get messed with, and when they speak, other kids listen. And usually thereʼs about six of them on the (peer-group) team,” said Stephanie Fletcher, a program specialist in the Positive Youth Development department. 

“Then we say, we have a mission for you. We have a problem of bullying, and we need your support, we need your help. We canʼt, as the adults, stop this problem,” Fletcher explained. “And I always say, the student whoʼs getting bullied selected you because they know that every single one of you can get the problem to stop. And then thatʼs when they kind of start to lean in.”

The group then reads the first-person account of the student whoʼs been the target of bullying and discusses how that sort of treatment would make them feel, if it was happening to them.

“Letʼs take today,” Fletcher said, referring to a group she had just worked with earlier in the day. “One student said, ʻIʼd want to be homeschooled.ʼ Another student said, like, ʻI would be crying all the time.ʼ Another student said, ʻIʼd be so mad.ʼ And one other student actually said, ʻIʼd tell the teacher and wouldnʼt really care, I would get that kid in trouble.ʼ And I said, thatʼs why youʼre on the team: Because you have the power to be able to get upset and you are influential. ... And he said ʻI get it,ʼ and he started to lean in a little more.”

The students come up with a plan of action to help.

“They said things like, ʻLetʼs see if we hear something.ʼ ʻIf we hear somebody say anything mean, letʼs tell them to stop,ʼ ” Fletcher said. ” ʻWhen is this happening, guys?ʼ Oh, itʼs during passing (period)? And at lunch? OK, letʼs sit with her sometimes at lunch.ʼ Some of them agreed, because they are in passing together, to walk with them when theyʼre in passing period.”

And when students doing the bullying admit it was them behind it, the counselors tell them the program isnʼt about blaming them.

“We donʼt care what you did before,” Bicondova said. “Weʼre giving you an opportunity to do something to help.”

According to the district, at schools where administrators have adopted the program, it has a 100% success rate. The student getting bullied has to rate the amount of bullying theyʼre dealing with, on a scale from zero to 10, on a regular “So I picked my friends that I knew I could trust, and then I got the girl that was bullying me — the one that was the main one of the group,” Keeme-Anweiler said. “And so (the counselor) would share my story with them, not saying who I was or anything, and when they hear what my story was, they would accept to help me out on it. Nobody knows who the bully is. So the girl in there thatʼs actually bullying me, she doesnʼt know itʼs about her.”

Her friends realized something strange was going on.

“They actually came up to me and theyʼre like, ʻWhy would you put her in here?ʼ Sheʼs the one bullying you,ʼ Keeme-Anweiler recalled them saying. “But I said, ʻNo, this is supposed to help me. You guys are supposed to help me. So sheʼs in there on purpose. I put her on there on purpose.ʼ

The group focused on ways to make Keeme-Anweilerʼs daily life better and to make her more visibly supported.

“It was three weeks that they had these meetings, and Iʼd seen a change, because the girl would come up to me, like, ʻIʼm so sorry,ʼ Keeme-Anweiler said.

The groups seemed to have really reached the girl formerly behind the bullying,  Keeme-Anweiler said. The girl would check on her throughout the school day and offer her hugs. 

“She probably understood what I was going through since I told them about my history of mental health and my history,” Keeme-Anweiler said. “If I really wanted the help, and I wanted this to go away, I had to be open and true about whatʼs going on.”

And over time, the bullying went down from the scale from 9 to 5 or 6 initially.

“A couple more weeks later, I noticed that her friends wouldnʼt do it as much anymore. And they would even come up to me and compliment me and stuff,” Keeme-Anweiler said.

After about a month, Keeme-Anweiler rated the bullying a zero.

“This is the only thing that really worked for me,” said Keeme-Anweiler, who had also been bullied in elementary school. “We always talk to a principal, we always talk to a teacher ... and itʼll help a (little bit), but it didnʼt help as much as the 

prevention” program she encountered in 2018. 

Once the bullying stopped, Keeme-Anweiler blossomed. She joined JROTC, and rose to a leadership position in the program, she said, and she became more outgoing and assertive in class.

“Her mental health has improved so much,” Charmain Anweiler said. “She no longer needs therapy. She doesnʼt seem depressed.” 

If she hadnʼt participated in the program, Keeme-Anweiler believes high school would have gone very differently for her. 

“It would have been miserable. I would still be a shy person” like in elementary and middle school, Keeme-Anweiler said. “I would still just talk to teachers, and I would stay in their rooms for lunch.”

Thatʼs what the program does, according to Bicondova.

“The process changes everyone involved,” she wrote in an email, “the student getting bullied, the bystanders and the students doing the bullying.”

This story is part of a 2021 Data Fellowship with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

[This article was originally published by The Sun.]

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