Peer Helpers program to address bullying in county schools

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A new program is being implemented in the Walker County school system to curb bullying — all with the help of students.

The Walker County Board of Education recently received a $49,000 Alabama Anti-Bullying and Safe Environment Initiative grant through the Alabama State Department of Education to start the Peer Helpers program.

Steve Rowe, an administrative assistant with the county schools, explained that the program is designed to train students as peer helpers and support fellow peers who are being bullied or who simply need to talk to someone about any issue they may be facing.

"We want to try to find some students, not necessarily the kids that you would always pick, to be the peer helper. We want kids that are respected by pretty much everybody at the school and students who those who have an issue are naturally drawn to, to talk to," Rowe said. "We train them specifically so that they can support whatever the issue is that the other student is dealing with. They're not counselors, and they're not snitches."

Rowe said designated peer helpers can also serve as a mediator between faculty and students if further supportive assistance is needed.

"Sometimes students are not comfortable talking to adults, so this just gives them an opportunity to talk to somebody they can relate to and understand," he said. "Then if there's a need for it to be reported up, then they can."

Teachers, counselors and other employees from various schools completed a training session on Peer Helpers last Tuesday at the Walker County Board of Education office. As part of the Peer Helpers program, school employees can monitor an online database that will record the work of Peer Helpers to ultimately determine the needs of the student body.

For example, if more students are struggling with issues such as divorce, abuse and bullying, that will be reflected in the program's data.  

ThriveWay is a company that provides Peer Helpers training and tools to successfully utilize the program.

"We are very excited to have been selected by the Walker County Board of Education to bring the Peer Helpers program to their schools," ThriveWay President Allison Moore said in an email to the Daily Mountain Eagle. "This comprehensive prevention and support program is one that addresses school-wide climate as well as individual student needs."

Those who participated in Peer Helpers training at the school board are now trained to work with students designated as Peer Helpers. The students are trained on how to respond to a number of issues their peers may face.

A document from the Alabama State Department of Education explains, "The program will be used for student prevention and awareness including but not limited to all state mandates, bullying, drugs and alcohol, abuse and suicide ideation. The program will provide students with the same prevention information in an age-appropriate and harmonious manner. ... Peer Helpers will serve as front line prevention and through training, they will be able to  assist in identifying at-risk students."   

The Peer Helpers curriculum has four main topics of focus: Bullying and harassment, self-harm and suicide, drugs and alcohol use and abuse, and physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse. Training to address each topic is implemented based on grade level for kindergarten through 12th-grade peer helpers students.

Rowe said the program is currently in a pilot stage at all Walker County schools, and full implementation should occur during the 2020-21 school year.

The program is not aimed at replacing counselors or the mentorship of an adult, Rowe said. Instead, it's providing another tool to help students seek support.

"They're not going to be trained in counseling. They're going to be trained in what to look for and those types of things," Rowe said. "We don't want people to think that we're trying to have students solve all the problems. It's just another level to try to solve problems."

Roy Martin, director of the school system's 180 and Hope and Twilight programs, initially discovered the Peer Helpers opportunity. If the school system sees benefits from the program, the grant to access training and Peer Helpers online tools can be applied for again.     

The foundational training of Peer Helpers can be used for years to come, however.

"It's just another tool we can use to hopefully help out somebody who is struggling and needs to talk to somebody," Martin said.

Oakman High School counselor Dana Gray participated in last week's training and believes the program will be a valuable asset at all grade levels.

"The peer helpers can offer a variety of help like mentoring or tutoring. Our training gave us the start-up tools to know how to start a program, the application process for prospective Peer Helpers, and how to train students to be a part of the program," Gray said. "I really think having peer-to-peer help will do wonderful things for the Walker County school system."

Walker County Schools Mental Health Director Misty Whisenhunt said Peer Helpers will be an additional, beneficial resource to help target the mental health needs of students.

"It is an additional avenue for students to receive extra social and emotional support within the school setting. Many times students reach out to their peers before reaching out to an adult, especially in pre-teens and teens," Whisenhunt said. "This program can be implemented differently in each school based on that school's needs. It not only helps students who may have social and emotional concerns but it benefits the peer helpers as well. It teaches them empathy, problem-solving skills, listening skills, etc. — skills that will help them throughout their life."