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Some say anti-bullying program goes too far

CAVE JUNCTION — Some parents and community residents contend This is The Edge, an Ashland-based anti-bullying program that encourages students to step over an imaginary line in front of their peers, crossed the line itself.

During an assembly on the first day of school at Lorna Byrne Middle School, leaders of the workshop encouraged the youths to "walk over the line" both literally and metaphorically by confessing what some parents call intimate family and personal details.

Following an outburst of parental outrage on social media, officials at Illinois Valley High School canceled the first of three scheduled presentations of The Edge.

The Three Rivers School District, which includes IVHS, also announced other schools in the district won't be using the program again, opting instead to create its own in-house anti-bullying program.

It was the second time this year a theme of anti-bullying generated harsh words and inflamed tempers in the district, though apparently for a different reason. In January, several board members disagreed on the language of an anti-bullying policy they viewed as reverse discrimination.

That's not the concern this time. Instead, parents felt the program was overly invasive and potentially counterproductive.

On the Facebook page "A Better Cave Junction," one parent accused The Edge of brainwashing students "by encouraging children to reach a point of emotional breakdown, followed by building them back up through positive psychology, each with the intent of achieving an externally defined goal."

Another parent posted that her son left the program "feeling really confused, mad, and feeling sorry for the kids that were upset."

She went on to say, "To have them show their weaknesses, and vulnerabilities, to me adds more ammo for the bullies. This being done on the first day of school when half or over half of the kids are scared and nervous enough was NOT OK.

"The focus in my opinion should have been (on) making them feel comfortable, safe, and getting used to their new surroundings. NOT once again tearing them down only to bring them back up."

Dave Valenzuela, a spokesman for the school district, said, "Last year it was simpler, a straightforward anti-bullying program," he said. "This time, at the middle school it was more overt, kind of, kids having to demonstrate things they were going through."

Grant Williams, founder of This is The Edge, refused to provide the Daily Courier with a copy of the questions that were asked of students. He said he was worried a copy could be used to replicate his program, should it get into the wrong hands.

He said he provides the questions to the schools in advance, and that administrators are pledged to secrecy and can't release those questions to parents or the media.

“If I had a parent call me up and want to see the questions, I would let them, but I would want to be there and have them see with me there, and get (the questions) back afterwards. I would not turn the questions over to a stranger,” Williams said.

The essence of the program, he said, is crossing the line and becoming vulnerable — in front of about 100 classmates, teachers and other staff.

“Granted, it can be intense, but it’s better to be vulnerable with each other in a safe environment,” he said.

It’s not mandatory for students to participate in the program. However, parents are sent a letter from the school prior to the event, and any child whose parents neglect to sign and return the form automatically are signed up.

A former dancer and choreographer, Williams started This is The Edge in 2009, together with former Rogue River School District educator Floyd Graves. The program was first presented at Rogue River schools that year.

The program also was presented last year in Rogue River and was fairly successful there, according to Rogue River Junior and Senior High School Principal Jesse Pershin.

Pershin said he didn’t receive any major complaints about the program and felt comfortable with questions asked of students, concerning beliefs, race, and other items to “cross the line.

However, Pershin doesn’t plan to use the program this year, explaining “kids don’t need it every year.”

One Rogue River parent, speaking to the Daily Courier on condition of anonymity, said the program wasn’t received well by all parents in that district. There was crying and a negative boys-vs-girls atmosphere, the parent said.

“It’s insanity,” she said. “You think kids are not going to tease you after you’ve spilled your guts in front of everyone?”

Acknowledging that several parents objected to the Lorna Byrne presentation, Williams said he wonders about any parent who wouldn’t want their child sharing answers to questions concerning race, religion, alcohol and drug-use by parents, bullying, suicide and cutting, or anything else discussed.

“The question that I’m asking (is), ‘What are you hiding?’ ” he said.

Williams contends the program is received better in other communities. The Edge regularly travels to schools in Northern California and Southern Oregon.

“Rogue River and Cave Junction are low-income communities. We’ve had a lot of fundamentalist parents in those communities,” he explained.

Asked what he meant by that, Williams refused to expand on the comment and instead hastily tried to retract it.

Though it caused a ruckus this year in the Illinois Valley, another school in Three Rivers apparently had no problems a few years back.

In 2010, then-Lincoln Savage Middle School Principal Kirk Baumann, who is now principal at Fort Vannoy Elementary School, brought The Edge to Lincoln Savage.

Although he recalled some tears being shed, he said it was nothing like Cave Junction parents said occurred at Lorna Byrne and that his main memory was that the assembly was “really long.”

“On a positive note,” he added, “the program opened the doors for comments later from youths who reminded their peers of positive things they’d said in the assembly.”

Reach reporter Ruth Longoria Kingsland at 541-474-3718 or rkingsland@thedailycourier.com