Guest Article Written By: James L. Casale, Ph.D
“Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds.”
-George Eliot, Adam Beade
In May of 2012, the parents of an eighth grader in a private Christian school in Florida sued the school because they claimed that their son was physically bullied by being kicked and stabbed with pencils. Lawyers for the boy stated that he twice had to go to the emergency room. Paul Coughlin, a bully expert and author, was quoted in a newspaper article as saying that, “No school is immune to bullying.”
A fight in a middle school classroom in Palm Beach County, Florida was recorded on a camera phone and later broadcast on local TV and You Tube. I will spare you all the details but two are worth noting: 1) the principal of the school was quoted as saying, “This goes on in many other local middle schools.” 2) District policy does not permit fighting back. It does permit the victim to ward off the bully’s punches. Both boys were suspended.
“I’m a monster” is how Wayne Treacy, a Deerfield Beach, Florida ninth grader described himself hours after stomping on the head of Mary Joe Ratley who will never fully recover. This gruesome act was the result of a sarcastic text message sent by Mary Joe to Wayne about the recent suicide of Wayne’s brother.
Other extreme cases of bullying include:
- The terrifying incidents at Columbine High School where students and staff were murdered,
- The increasing number adolescent suicides due to bullying and cyber bullying
- The hazing incident at Florida A&M which resulted in the death of a band member.
Major findings from the 2009 Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey reveal that about 28 percent of students ages 12-17 reported that they were bullied at school. A bullying report was published by the Centers for Disease Control based on the Massachusetts Youth Health Survey of nearly 6,000 public middle and high school students in 2009.
The survey indicated that 43.9 percent of middle school students who responded to the survey were affected by bullying and 30.5 percent for high school students. The study also reveals what researchers have known for a long time: bullying is linked to risk factors such as poor grades, drug use, alcohol use, and family violence.
Data is available through numerous sources including the National Education Association and the Justice Department. The Justice Department indicates on their website that bullying is the most under reported problem in American schools.
BULLYING: WHAT IS IT?
How would you define bullying? What comes to mind immediately? Fighting, pushing, shoving, name calling, insulting, and taunting may be at the top of your list. Any type of physical or verbal harassment where the intent is to harm someone is considered bullying. Therefore we can include things like stalking, threatening, taking someone’s property, and according to Kathleen Winkler, causing someone to be, “socially isolated by excluding her or him” from a group.
Mona O’Moore and Stephen Minton in their book, Dealing with Bullying in Schools (2004) reveal six standard myths about bullying:
- It’s part of life.
- Boys will be boys.
- It happens at all schools; don’t worry
- Sticks and stones will hurt my bones but words will never harm me.
- Bullying never did me any harm.
- It’ll toughen you up.
These, of course, are all nonsense because bullying is not part of life, not acceptable in any way, shape, or manner, words are hurtful and none of it will toughen you up.
THE SCHOOL’S RESPONSE
According to James Garabino and Ellen DeLara in their book, And Words Can Hurt Forever (2002), “What do we learn from listening to kids talk about school safety? We learn that even in schools that adults consider physically safe, many children feel threatened.” The authors go on to say that, “the system and culture of the school is responsible for continuing harassment and emotional violence.”
Parents are expected to be informed and knowledgeable about all school policies, efforts and initiatives. Do not wait for the school to inform you. If you are interested, become proactive and request the information you want. In my experience, schools only offer information to parents on a need to know basis or when there is a crisis.
Many schools across the country have taken up the challenge of confronting bullying and enacted measures such as the following:
- Adopted ant-bullying programs.
- Blanketed the school with posters and slogans
- Purchase t-shirts
- Offer conflict resolution lessons as part of the curriculum
- Host guest speakers
- Provide in-service to all staff
- Monitor hot spots around the school with appropriate student/teacher ratios (hallways, cafeteria, playground, parking lots, and busses.)
- Distribute policy statements to students and parents.
- Seek parent involvement on committees
- Conduct parent meetings.
- Utilize student and parent surveys to gather data.
- Document reported incidents.
- Consequences are real and followed.
- Provide counseling support.
- Involve parent organizations and the police department.
- Review and evaluate everything.
All of the above is as worthless as the lotto ticket that says, not a winner, unless the school has the leadership to make things happen. I have worked for school principals who could not lead a line of fourth graders to a water fountain. In our less than perfect world, no one is going to care more about your child than her most important teacher, nurturer, and protector; you.
SUGGESTIONS FOR PARENTS
This topic and the section on cyberbullying which follows are considered to be under the umbrella of chapter two, Safety and Security. The information and your commitment to make sure that your school is as safe as it can be is of paramount importance. Accidents will happen in the best of circumstances and bullying will not be entirely eradicated. But negligence should never be part of the equation.
The following suggestions will contribute to the knowledge you need to make informed decisions that will be useful at home and school:
- Find out if your state has passed any legislation regarding bullying and cyberbullying.
- If so determine if the legislation is part of your school district’s policy.
- If your schedule permits, serve on school committees.
- Advise your child, who may be a victim or a bystander, to report incidences of bullying.
- Model your expectations by learning some conflict resolution strategies.
- Form a group of like-minded parents.
- No cellphones for anyone under 16 unless they are programmed to contact only family members or 911.
- No social networking. Monitor e-mail accounts.
- If you encounter a bullying issue at school, arrange a conference with the teacher or the supervising adult.
- For issues outside the classroom that take place in hot spots, see the principal.
- If you are not satisfied with your conferences, see the superintendent of schools.
- Serious situations require the police.
- Withdraw from the school.
- If so inclined, there are numerous books and websites that will keep you informed.
- Seek the involvement of the school’s parent organization.
Jamey Rodenmeyer, a fourteen year old boy from Buffalo, NY, committed suicide because he was bullied over the internet about his sexuality. The messages were vicious, “I wouldn’t care of you died. So just do it.”
The Edward B. Shallow Junior High School in New York City suspended more students than any other school for sexting; posting sexually suggestive comments and photos.
Cyberbullying is defined by Jennifer Holladay as the use of technology to harass, humiliate, or threaten. Face book, Twitter, other social networks, texting, and e-mails combine to establish a system that allows cyber bullying to exist. During my child hood in ancient times, passing notes around the classroom was the extent of non- confrontational bullying. If the teacher intercepted the note, she confronted the note bully, issued a warning, sent the student to the office, or all three. Not so today, when modern technology allows thousands of viewers to access the bully’s message and join the attack.
- Restrict the use of all electronic devices.
- Become acquainted with all your child’s friends and their parents.
- Insist on more face to face interactions and play dates for the younger children.
- Educational uses for electronic devices are the main reason to possess them. Monitor their use.