Loma Linda Elementary School stops bullying, transforms culture of school in less than a year

PHOENIX - Can bullying ever be stopped? One Valley elementary school says yes. They implemented a unique program that not only transformed the culture of the school, but forever changed the life of a boy who desperately needed help.

"Throw the ball!"

The sounds are unmistakable. Each one a reminder of the innocence of being a child. But at this recess, there's a different sound.

"Good job, nice try!"

They're four simple words: good job, nice try, that have become life-changing at Loma Linda Elementary School.

"There's definitely some discipline issues that came at the beginning of his 5th grade year," the school's principal Dr. Stephanie De Mar tells ABC15.

At such a young age, Daniel Fritz's attitude was a red flag.

"He was suspended last year for aggression. He would ditch class," 5th grade teacher Alexandria Hibert explains.

But, discipline was no match for Daniel's deep-seeded anger.

"They were very, very close with their mom," explains Bertina Sainz, Daniel's aunt and caregiver.

Three years ago, Daniel and his brother were taken abruptly from their home and forced to attend a brand new school.

"I know he was hurting, but he tried so hard to be strong," Bertina says.

One day, while sitting in his 5th class, Daniel was handed a single piece of paper.

"Coach Kari came in the door, she said whoever wants to join Playworks would get a piece of paper to sign," says Daniel.

Playworks is a non-profit organization that promises to transform a school's negative culture by expelling the disorder, the disruption and the isolation that happens every day at recess all over the country.

"When there's a lot of downtime for students, that's usually when they start talking negatively about each other," says Valencia Winfrey, the program director for Playworks Arizona.

"It was an environment of conflict and problems that has a direct impact on what happens in the classroom," says Dr. De Mar.

Which is why she decided to bring in a full-time Playworks coach, who organizes recess by, first, teaching each student the rules of the games.

"That's usually when conflicts arise, there's a misunderstanding between kids," explains Valencia.

Then, second, they explain the expectations for their behavior.

"Instead of saying 'you're out!' we teach the kids how about you say 'good job' or 'nice try.'"

A concept so simple it actually works. An independent study in association with Stanford University found 43% less bullying in schools that use Playworks. Kids like Daniel are the ones running the show. His 5th grade teacher says his positive attitude on the playground has spelled success in and out of the classroom.

Daniel's 5th grade teacher said he stopped being crude and started to care.

"I decided to run the half marathon for the fundraiser last year and we saw Daniel out there cheering for us," Alexandria tears up as she remembers the moment. "It just showed us how much he cared about us and the program."

Proving his resistance had evolved into respect.

"Oh, I'm so proud, you won't even, for him to be where he's at today is a lot," says Daniel's aunt.

It was a breakthrough all because of four simple words that have given a young man with a big heart a very bright future.

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