Banishing Bullying

By Sara Vigneri

Bullying runs the gamut from teasing to harassment to physical violence, but the results are often the same—the victim feels isolated and depressed and school can turn into a frightening prison. A study published in the journal Pediatrics estimates that 20-30 percent of students are involved in bullying either as victims or perpetrators, or both—victims can often be pushed to a breaking point where they become bullies themselves. “These are social issues,” says Pam Vlasaty, director of student services at Wilson Area School District where every school building has been accredited as “No Place for Hate.” “Name calling, social cliques, isolation of peer groups, these are typical social issues at schools, it’s nothing new.” But the issue with bullying isn’t that it’s getting worse or that we don’t know it exists; the trouble is knowing what to do to prevent it.

The Highmark Foundation has devoted $100 million in Pennsylvania to improve child wellness in a program called the Highmark Healthy High 5 and it includes bullying prevention as one of the five key areas. Some of that money has been used to implement the Olweus program—a research-based bullying prevention program that involves intense training of teachers and school staff. “We’ve hosted more training in Pennsylvania than any other state,” says Jane Riese, director of training with Olweus. “Pennsylvania has some of the most forward-thinking people when it comes to research and evidence-based bullying prevention programming. We need to set the stage where the school climate is welcoming, and PA has been extremely proactive in that regard.” That means there’s a good chance you have an Olweus-trained teacher at your school. For example, Robert Thornburg, director of student services at Parkland School District, has been training teachers in the program at his district. “The overall goal is to create a climate of respect and a community of caring,” says Thornburg. “So it’s not just about reducing numbers of incidents but about changing the climate.” What that means is teachers and school staff are not only looking out to intervene when they witness acts of intimidation or bullying, but they are also tasked with creating an environment where intimidation and bullying aren’t tolerated.

The top-down approach begins with school-wide programs, assemblies and campaigning by the principal, to classroom level pow-wows where bullying-related issues are discussed, to dealing with the individuals involved in bullying. “Bullying is an imbalance of power over time,” explains Thornburg. “But if we are trained to watch out for this imbalance then you can address it before it results in disruptive behavior in the classroom.”

While preventing bullying is clearly the ideal scenario, there will still be incidents that need to be handled. If your child comes home from school distressed because of teasing, bullying or feeling excluded, it’s difficult to know what to do. Heidi Markow, founder of the Beginning Over Foundation, which helps victims of abuse, is working to create programs to help parents of both bullies and victims. “When your child is harassed the natural instinct is to call the parents of the bully,” says Markow. “But calling the parent won’t work because they usually don’t want to admit their child is a problem. Parents can walk into our center and get all the information they need, have all their questions answered about dealing with bullying.” They are also working on creating a mediator program where someone from the foundation will work with both parents to try and resolve the issue. Markow’s foundation provides programs in schools and within the center to teach strategies to students and help parents, teachers and students spot a bully. “Boys tend to bully physically while girls may use other tactics like rumors, gossiping, name-calling and exclusion,” says Markow. “Bullies tend to have low self-esteem and a home life where there is a lack of respect. If not addressed in the early years, many perpetrators grow up to become domestic violence offenders.” Markow understands bullying firsthand: her daughter was harassed and threatened by a group of kids at school and Markow ended up taking the perpetrators to court. And she sees the victims who come to her for help, such as a 14-year old girl who was viciously harassed on Facebook and become withdrawn and depressed. “If a student is a victim, they need to address it and take action,” says Markow.

Bullies tend to have low self esteem and a home life where there is a lack of respect. If not addressed in the early years many perpetrators grow up to become domestic violence offenders

The topic of Facebook and cyber bullying seems to come up quite a bit in recent news, and it’s no wonder. “Kids say things online they would never do in person,” says Vlasaty. If you ever read the comments section on various publications’ websites, you’ll notice that adults haven’t quite figured out how to temper their opinions online either—the web provides a unique mask which allows for a liberality of opinion that would never be attempted in a face-to-face conversation. And the results can be disastrous in children, including recent reports of kids committing suicide because of vicious taunting on social networking sites such as Facebook. The issue has gotten big enough that the Pennsylvania legislature included “bullying by electronic means” in its definition of bullying and required schools to have an anti-bullying policy in place that would include acts of bullying that occur outside the school. This allows victims to use the criminal justice system to deal with bullies who harass them in school or online. But clearly, educating your kids about proper rules of engagement online is essential.

In a world post-Columbine we cannot afford to toss aside bullying as a problem that kids need to work out among themselves. Bullying has a direct impact on the quality of education by hindering the learning process—the Department of Justice estimates that bullying keeps as many as 160,000 kids away from school every day. Not only are the victims affected, but the bystanders are as well. If bullying is allowed to persist, research shows that the observers tend to have a decreased sense of empathy over time. “Everyone who witnesses the situation is considered part of it,” says Thornburg. “They can’t just say they don’t want to get involved.” And lastly, without intervention, the bullies are more likely to become violent criminals—one study found that middle school bullies are three times as likely to have at least one criminal conviction by age 24 without intervention.

What can you do? First, call your school district and find out about their anti-bullying policies and prevention programs. If you think your child is the victim of harassment, talk to the school or the Beginning Over Foundation to determine the proper strategy. Most importantly, however, is to create an environment of respect in the home where your child learns that harassment and social exclusion are not tolerated.

Sara Vigneri is an experienced health journalist.

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