Bridgehampton Focuses on Building Positive School Culture

Sixth-grader Sarah Kapon, center, talks about a social experiment using playing cards that Bridgehampton School Board members, teachers and administrators participated in during last Wednesday’s school board meeting. Christine Sampson photo

Bridgehampton School Board members, teachers, administrators and two students milled about the school cafeteria last Wednesday night with playing cards stuck to their heads — cards that dictated how they were to treat the others around them. Depending on the card, they were either social elite or social outcasts, but none of them knew his or her own card before the game began.

Sascha Gomberg, a fifth grader, and Sarah Kapon, a sixth grader, along with teacher Jessica Rodgers, said it was an exercise designed to help everyone understand the impact of social exclusion, discrimination and bullying.

“People can be treated badly because of their race, gender, their clothes, how they look,” Sarah said, adding she’s seen people being bullied at school.

The activity was part of a presentation on school atmosphere and the culture of respect at Bridgehampton during which Ms. Rodgers gave the results of an anonymous survey of 81 students in grades six through 12.

Asked whether they agreed with the statement,“In general, the environment at this school is positive,” 12.3 percent of students strongly agreed; 40.7 percent agreed; 37 percent felt “neutral,” and 10 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed. Asked whether they agreed with the statement, “Students in this school show respect for each other,” 9.9 percent strongly agreed; 24.7 agreed; 43.2 percent felt “neutral,” and 22.2 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed.

In an interview Friday, principal Michael Miller said he wished there had been more “agree” or “strongly agree” answers. He said the school atmosphere is generally positive but there is always room for improvement.

“I want all students to think this is a positive school environment, but that is probably unrealistic,” he said. “My goal is for everyone to feel safe here and that students are respectful at all times. We want to create good people in and out of school, and when they leave Bridgehampton, we want them to be productive members of society who learned their character traits here.”

School board vice president Lillian Tyree-Johnson said the survey results surprised her.

“For many years, we really haven’t had that kind of issue because of the type of school we have,” she said. “It’s been a close-knit, family-type atmosphere where there haven’t been a lot of instances of bullying. The climate of the world is changing, and it seems like it’s so prevalent that kids are feeling more pressure and it’s coming out in a lot of different ways.”

Last Wednesday, Ms. Rodgers said the district was putting programs in place to address bullying and build richer, more respectful relationships among students.

“We can help prevent bullying by talking about it, building a safe school environment and creating a community-wide bullying prevention strategy,” she said.

Among the strategies, she explained, is the school’s Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support program, which is boosted by a grant from the organization Paddlers for Humanity. The program rewards students who are “caught” demonstrating exemplary behavior. The school also has a Dignity for All Students Committee that meets monthly as part of a New York State requirement to address bullying. Ms. Rodgers is chair. The school has also set up peer mentoring and both small group and one-on-one counseling sessions.

Another recent effort, she said, was “station rotations,” in which elementary students received lessons in good behavior.

“We identified some situations in the hallway with the third through fifth graders and said we need to do something about that,” Ms. Rodgers said. “We taught what was expected in the cafe, the playground, the hallway and the rest of the school.”

She explained the elementary school’s Student Council was trying to set good examples.

Sascha, the president, said, “I believe that the Student Council should set a good example for all the students in school, and show them that bullying is not tolerated.”

On Friday, Mr. Miller said he is proud of the faculty for modeling proper behavior for the students, and said he hopes to get parents and other family members and guardians on the same page.

“We all need to be going in the same direction,” he said. “I think it’s paramount that students feel positive. When they’re in a positive culture, they’re going to get more out of it. They’re going to want to be involved, engaged, successful.”