ODESSA — Forget what you think you know about Walker Middle School.
That's what students and staff are saying, nearly a year after four students were arrested on felony charges related to a series of alleged locker room rapes.
On Wednesday, the school held an assembly to launch a comprehensive anti-bullying program. Teachers have been fully trained, and students led classroom presentations to raise awareness of the issue.
"We have started a very positive tone," said new principal Joseph Brown. "This is a new day."
Officials describe the new program, Olweus Bullying Prevention, as a research-based approach to transforming school climate.
"So every kid has a voice and every kid feels protected," Brown said. "That's what today's program is about, and that's what Olweus is about."
Since the incidents last spring, the Hillsborough County School District has unveiled a new anti-bullying policy. It launched a Web site for reporting potential incidents and tightened up its supervision policies.
Students are no longer allowed into locker rooms if they can't be supervised, Brown said.
And schools are adopting research-based programs to reinforce the message. Olweus is being launched at several schools, including those serving Walker families, Hammond Elementary and Sickles High.
The program, developed in Norway, focuses on educating students about what bullying is and helping them to report incidents to adults.
"The Olweus program is really designed to affect the bystander," Brown said. "Let's tell the bully to stop. Let's tell an adult."
Such prevention efforts can help, but they're of little use if students don't feel safe confiding in adults when there's a problem, said Dorothy Espelage, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois and co-author of Bullying Prevention and Intervention.
And schools need to offer more intensive counseling for at-risk students, she told the Times last spring.
"Without some pull-out programs, we're going to miss the kids at both ends of the spectrum, the chronic bullies and victims," Espelage said.
During the assembly at Walker, PE teacher Selina Perez told students about common types of bullying. It's not just about punching people, she said. Name calling, texting, or excluding others is bullying, too.
"We're going to come together as a school," she said, inviting students to sign an anti-bullying pledge.
Students said they were shocked by the national attention the incidents drew upon their school last spring, and have been working since then to repair the damage.
"We have a great school with a lot of great students and teachers," said eighth-grader Caroline Koch, president of the student council.
She said students have embraced the program's emphasis on talking about bullying and speaking up when they see problems.
"I think it's opened our eyes a lot," said Koch, 14.
Prosecutors have offered a plea deal — felony battery charges with juvenile sanctions — to the four boys who were accused of sexually assaulting a classmate with a broomstick and hockey stick. One has accepted, and attorneys are working out details with the others.
But students at Walker say they have moved on, and are focused on making their school safe for everyone.
Eighth-grader Haley Richardson said she's more aware of how students treat each other. On Wednesday morning, she heard two kids shouting at another.
"I thought to myself, 'Don't you think you could have handled that differently?' " she said.
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.