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Starfish Program Makes a Difference
Anti-Bullying Program Introduced in All Buildings

High school isnít always the best time of life for students who are targets of bullying and put-downs. In the Armstrong School District, students and staff are taking a preventative approach to eliminating this type of behavior through what is known as the "Starfish Program."

The program, which was presented to the district by educational consultant Dennis R. Barger earlier this year, clearly defines bullying behavior as "any word, sign or action that inflicts or threatens to inflict physical and/or emotional injury to a person's body, feelings or possessions." The primary goal of the program is to make schools safer and institute a more productive learning environment for all students. "Starfish is really a very simple, practical program," explains Mr. Barger, who after 32 years of teaching 6th grade in the Karns City School District, has made Starfish his life's mission. "You don't need a lot of material. Just start with the heart."

The program's name originates from the story of a man who met a young boy tossing beached starfish back into the ocean. When told that his efforts were in vain because he couldn't possibly save all of the thousands of starfish that had washed ashore, the boy held a single creature in his small hand and replied, "Well, I am going to save this one." Mr. Barger alludes to the prevalence of violence on television and film as a negative influence on today's youth, as well as less stable home environments and the significance that society places on money and materialism today. For those who are targets of put-downs, the emotional gamut may run from sadness and anger, to revenge and possibly violence. Mr. Barger points out that the students at Columbine High School were targets of bullies, and the unthinkable happened in part because no one recognized the warning signs.

"The most powerless group of people in the country today are kids. I'm a proponent of discipline with dignity. We need to point kids in the right direction without breaking their spirit. People don't always realize that sometimes these kids are just trying to survive from one day to another."

Earlier this year, Mr. Barger made presentations to ASD educators on the basic components of the program, which include team building and effective communication skills. Since then, teachers have followed up with in-service training and have worked to develop and incorporate their own Starfish Programs.

At Lenape Elementary School, recent in-service programs focused on team building and Starfish principles. Principal Eileen Amato says her staff has set goals to establish "no put-down" playground and cafeteria environments.

Lenape Elementary teachers wear Starfish pins in the classroom, and incorporate principles of the program into classroom learning. Classes who display exemplary Starfish behavior are recognized on the school's "Wall of Fame." Mrs. Amato also believes that the Starfish Program has made Lenape Elementary students more sensitive to the special needs of the Emotional Support children who share the building. She says the student body has made these children feel welcome by including them in playground and other school activities.

"The biggest thing that the program has done at our school is create an awareness in the minds of our students as to how they should treat other students," says Mrs. Amato. "The Starfish Program sets a behavioral standard in which they can relate to and use as a guide."