“I get that there is bullying at every school,” said Woest, who eventually transferred her daughter to another school following what she called “repeated efforts” to resolve the situation with the school and the other student’s family. “But in this case, it was so severe and ongoing that we felt we had to do something.”
Woest isn’t alone. According to the National Education Association, more than 160,000 children miss school each day due to bullying, and more than 90 percent of fourth- through eighth-grade students report having been the victim of bullying at their school.
Kids will be kids
It wasn’t long ago that bullying was considered a natural rite of passage, a coming-of-age playground experience that built backbone and taught kids to stand up for themselves. They all knew a bully, and with a little introspection, might have confessed to uttering an unkind word or two themselves. But while bullying isn’t new, its current level of intensity and sophistication has been ratcheted up.
“Kids have always picked on each other,” said Greg Hetrick, principal at Delta Vista Middle School in Oakley. “But back in our day you got through it and at the end of the school day that was the end of it. Now, with Facebook and other social media outlets, it causes a full-fledged disruption that follows kids home and then spills back onto campus.”
Just this week, a teacher in Texas was accused of encouraging students to slap and hit a 6-year-old classmate with a reputation for bullying as a lesson in how it feels to be attacked. The teacher was immediately fired, but the case has continued to shine a national spotlight on bullying.
Today as families, communities and educators work to combat the arguably growing trend, some say the most difficult step in the battle lies in its very definition. Webster’s dictionary describes the bully as “one who is habitually cruel to others” or uses “superior strength in order to intentionally hurt another person physically or mentally.”
But the explosion of the Internet and other electronic social outlets has given yesterday’s schoolyard ruffian a host of new tools which with to work. As Justice Potter Stewart famously replied in 1964 when asked to define pornography, “I just know it when I see it.” And so it is with bullying and its myriad manifestations.
But help is on the way thanks in part to new legislation, effective July 1, that requires California school districts serving grades K-12 to define and outline a plan for identifying, preventing and dealing with bullying. Although school districts have long been guided by their individual board’s policies, the official school definition of bullying has typically fallen somewhere between equal-rights violations, discrimination and harassment.
The new policy, called the Safe Place to Learn Act, adds bullying to its list of unacceptable behaviors such as discrimination and harassment. In essence an amendment to the existing education code pertaining to student safety, the Act includes updated provisions for more stringent checks, balances and definitions regarding bullying and cyberbullying. It also requires school district employees who see bullying to “take immediate steps to intervene when safe to do so.” And while board policies differ from district to district – although the State Board of Education has published guidelines for districts – the end game is the same: to keep students safe.
In the Oakley Union Elementary School District (OUESD), where new policies were expected to be presented to the board this week, preparations are underway to take a zero-tolerance approach to bullying.
“We have always had board policy regarding harassment, but none specifically dealing with bullying,” said Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Maryann Hussey. “But student safety is the number-one priority for us, and we are not going to tolerate any bullying.”
The OUESD policy defines the types of bullying – verbal, physical and cyber – explaining the prevention process; i.e., the establishment of clear rules, outreach to students to create a collaborative school climate, mechanisms available to students to report incidents or threats without fear of retaliation, along with consequences ranging from a verbal warning to expulsion.
“If so much as one student feels they are being bullied,” said Rick Rogers, Oakley Union School District (OUSD) superintendent, “then it has to be handled as such and dealt with immediately and appropriately.
According to Jan Steed, director of Student Services for the Brentwood Union School District (BUSD), in the past 12 months, more than 30 incidents of bullying have been reported in the district’s three middle schools. The new legislation is not only welcome, but will make school officials’ jobs easier while creating a safer environment.
“Absolutely we think it’s a good thing,” said Steed of the legislation. “It’s about keeping our children safe. We want our kids to know they are OK; we want to protect them as much as we can. That’s our job.”
“General student behavior is of paramount importance to us,” said Merrill Grant, BUSD superintendent. “Making sure kids know what the right thing to do is, what civility means and how your words can be interpreted.”
Eric Volta, Liberty Union High School District superintendent, agreed. “Anytime you have clear guidelines it’s helpful,” he said. “And this is something everyone is on board with. In the end it’s about student safety, right? We don’t want to wait until something tragic happens to take the appropriate steps.”
Brave new world
For a generation of educators and parents, the days of playground scuffles and catty cliques are gone, replaced instead by more sophisticated forms of bullying made possible – and popular – through the fast-paced world of social media.
“It used to be that if you saw something happening in the hallway you yelled, ‘Hey, you guys, knock it off!’ and that was the end of it,” said Byron Union School District Superintendent Ken Jacopetti. “But I think those days are pretty much gone. Historically things like that would be handled in the classroom, but what we have learned is that the face of bullying has changed quite dramatically, and we are really seeing that with cyberbullying. Now if there’s a fight on or off campus, it shows up as a video online or a post on Facebook.”
Much ado about nothing?
Studies show that a child who is bullied suffers not merely emotionally, but tends to struggle academically. One study supporting that theory was recently published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. Researchers found that kids who were bullied verbally and physically tended to be absent due to illness – from headaches and stomachaches – more often than their non-bullied peers. They also underachieved academically. The research highlights the growing signs that schools and parents need to work more closely to combat bullying on and off the playground.
“This is not just the school’s responsibility,” said Steed. “And it isn’t just a matter of parents not caring. I think it’s about parents becoming more aware of bullying. We will be offering a few parent meetings this year and reminding parents about Internet safety and how quickly something can get out of control. We definitely want to work with the community and make it a joint interest.”
Is it enough?
But are the new laws going to be enough to realistically prohibit bullying? How seriously will students, school districts and families take the Safe Place to Learn Act?
“I hope they take it very seriously,” said Woest. “I don’t want families to go through what we have as a family because of bullying. If it helps even one child, it will have been effective. It will have been worth it.”
To learn more about the Safe Place to Learn Act, log onto www.eqca.org. For additional information on combating bullying in the schools, visit the state education website at www.cde.ca.gov.
What to look for
If you suspect your child is the victim of bullying, the first line of defense is you. By taking action and staying vigilant, parents can help their children stay safe and thriving in their learning environment.
Take the complaint to the school
Your child’s teacher should be the first person you talk to, and an outline of the school district’s bullying policy should be made available if it hasn’t already. If you’re not satisfied by the teacher’s efforts to curtail the situation, your next step is up the food chain to the school principal. If all else fails, the final stop will be at the district superintendent’s office.
Give your child the tools
Teach your child to walk away when possible and ignore the situation. If the bullying also takes place online via Facebook or another social media outlet, you must monitor the online activity and preferably remove your child from the sites altogether, at least until the bullying stops.
Look for the signs
Sometimes children are too embarrassed or frightened to tell their parent or a trusted adult about being bullied. But symptoms of the abuse can soon result in ailments such as headaches, stomachaches or a decline in schoolwork or interest in outside activities. Pay attention to your children’s behavior and habits; no one knows them better than you.
Get the authorities involved
If the bullying is physical and continues despite your best efforts, take it to the police. Sometimes simply filing a complaint, prompting a stern warning to the bully from law enforcement, is enough to get the bully to back off.
For more information on bullying and how to avoid it, Google “bullying” and choose from the array of articles and websites on the topic.