Count Me In co-founder invited to White House anti-bullying conference

by Tim Kane

Count Me In co-founder invited to White House anti-bullying conference
By Kristin Will
Staff Writer,

Editor’s note: Stephanie Viens was interviewed prior to the Thursday conference at the White House, which occurred after the Town Reminder’s press deadline. She will give a follow-up interview to discuss the conference.

SOUTH HADLEY – Stephanie Viens got the call when she was about to give blood at South Hadley High School last week. “This is the White House, so … I have to go,” she quickly told the nurse about to draw her blood. The nurse has probably heard all the excuses in the book from those nervous about donating, but Viens was telling the truth.
Viens, a teacher at the high school, is one of three co-founders of the organization called Count Me In, which formed last year in the wake of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince’s death. Count Me In focuses on community building through action and has a motto of “restorative justice.” The group has focused on helping the town heal from the Prince tragedy and beyond by performing community service projects, such as cleaning up the Black Stevens Conservation Area, hosting an entire Community Service Week in January and was at the forefront of the creation of the South Hadley Neighbors Helping Neighbors Food Pantry.
The important call Viens received was an invitation to the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention held this past Thursday, March 10, in conjunction with the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services. Viens was invited to attend along with others across the nation who are taking action to address bullying and its prevention.
Although not everyone in attendance will be able to speak, Viens figures she will most likely be called upon to address the group, simply because the South Hadley bullying case became such a nationally known trial. She said she would recount the tragedy as she remembered it. “The thing that sticks out to me is that some of our own children hurt another child, and that’s a community issue,” said Viens. “A lot of these things are community issues.”
Effective policies and programs for bullying prevention will be discussed at the conference, most likely including the new bullying prevention campaign launched by the National Education Association called “Bully Free: It Starts With Me,” an initiative for adults to pledge their help to bullied students.
Viens believes “it takes a village” to fully tackle the issue of bullying, that teaching anti-bullying strategies should not just occur inside the classroom, but at home, too, where adults in any capacity should make themselves known as individuals to whom bullied students can turn. Viens believes having an open dialogue about bullying and its consequences is more effective than a curriculum on the subject.
The Bully Free: It Starts With Me program is something in which Viens hopes to play a role, whether by being instrumental at implementing it at the high school, Count Me In, or both.
“I’m excited,” she said. “It’s good to finally get some notice for what we’ve done. I’m proud of us.”
Count Me In was recently incorporated as a non-profit organization, and Viens will be presenting the model of South Hadley’s grassroots organization to the Massachusetts Teacher’s Association annual conference in April. She said they particularly liked the structure of Count Me In because it was an organizing group, rather than a mobilizing group. An organizing group is ever-lasting and focuses on a variety of topics rather than one in particular. “It was broad, it was slow and exclusive to lots of people,” said Viens about the creation of Count Me In. “It’s about organizing the community for support. It’s low-stress volunteerism. We have people who show up every single time and people that show up every third time, and that’s fine.”
Teachers will be able to take the model of Count Me In and how it was formed as a “reaction to the helpless feeling we were all feeling” after the Prince tragedy, said Viens, and use it as a rough guideline of how to form effective, organized groups for their own projects or associations.