Principals Gear Up for New School Year
By Sharon Boehlefeld, Features Editor
August 9, 2018
ROCKFORD—With a new school year just days away in the Rockford Diocese, principals gathered for a leaders’ in-service day at St. Rita Parish in Rockford on Aug. 6.
Michael Kagan, diocesan superintendent of schools, started the morning with a prayer for principals. He followed that with a Hail Mary for Barbara Colandrea, the principal of St. Mary School in Elgin, who died suddenly on July 31.
Acknowledging the loss of a colleague, he said Colandrea had been looking foward to the new school year and had been registered for the inservice.
Vito DeFrisco, assistant superintendent, then introduced the speaker, Jodee Blanco, who spent the morning talking about bullying. (See story below)
The afternoon included diocesan and state school updates, breakout, and question and anser session.
Teach Compassion to Squelch Bullying
ROCKFORD—An Aug. 6 professional training session for principals in the Rockford Diocese focused on dealing with and preventing bullying.
Speaker Jodee Blanco of Chicago shared her own experiences as a bullied child to help principals revisit the trauma children feel when they are picked on.
While older suggestions urged ignoring the bully, walking away or setting an example of better behavior, Blanco said all those attitudes only lead to worse situations for children.
By urging kids to walk away, she said, “We set a precedent and encourage kids to be bystanders in their own lives.” 
She also said the common adult response of sharing their own memories with children doesn’t help. That reaction, she said, just makes kids feel like the adult has ignored the child’s problem and “made (the situation) about you.”
Trying to address either the victim or the bully with adult logic also doesn’t work.
“A child cannot process (thoughts) like an adult until neurological maturation in their early 20s,” she said.
She said assuming kids can truly understand adult logic is the same as sitting a youngster down and ordering him or her to enter puberty. It simply can’t be done, she said.
She also said Catholic schools, because of their focus on compassion, integrity and truth, are well suited to help defuse and stop bullying.
“I’m as Catholic as a rosary bead,” the 54-year-old native Chicagoan and Catholic school graduate said before the meeting.
Her work has grown not only from her experience as a child bullied in Catholic schools, but from her college work in theater and communications and her career in public relations.
But despite her later successes, she said she didn’t really recover from her own bullying until she went to her 20th high school reunion and learned several of her tormenters never realized how deeply they hurt her.
When they communicated as adults, they reconnected and she learned she was able to forgive them.
She emphasized the importance of forgiveness for victims. Forgiving others, she said, relieves the victim’s grief and makes room for more of God’s grace.
“I loved the emphasis on ... putting yourself in the shoes of the child who is desperate,” said Patricia Wackenhut, principal of St. Edward School in Rockford. And when dealing with parents, Wackenhut said, “Here’s the time to slow down and connect, and even if we don’t have an answer immediately, stay compassionate, no matter who God’s put in your path.”
Wendy Kelly, principal at St. Laurence School in Elgin, plans to share Blanco’s tenets for dealing with both bullies and victims with her staff.
She also liked Blanco’s focus on dealing with challenges — not problems —and  creating plans of action — not solutions.
James Burns, principal at Cathedral of St. Peter School in Rockford said he liked the emphasis on engaging students — victims and bullies — with compassion.
“I’ll try not to be as punitive,” he added. “Hopefully you don’t have to, but there are occasions.”
Debra Novy, principal at Marian Central Catholic High School in Woodstock, said Blanco’s advice to reach out to parents immediately surprised her. 
“I was always taught to step back,” she said, adding, “I understand what she means.
“They (parents) want to be heard, and as much as we (principals) may be afraid of their initial burst we need to hear it when it’s fresh. We have to be able to listen,” she said.
Principal Mike Puttin of Holy Cross School in Batavia, appreciated Blanco’s reminder that it’s not appropriate “to apply adult cognition to kid issues. The fact is that the torment (bullying) is a cry for help. 
“We get caught up in the punishment wihout getting to the root of the problem,” he said.
He plans to share what he learned with Holy Cross teachers at their school in-service training, scheduled in a couple of weeks.