By Marsha Sutton
In an attempt to bring more focus on the chronic problem of bullying in schools, local California Assembly member Ben Hueso introduced a resolution declaring March to be School Bullying Prevention Awareness Month. The resolution, which was heard in Sacramento March 25, passed.
A related bill sponsored by Hueso, AB 630, would establish programs to train teachers and educators to spot bullying and provide techniques for prevention and intervention.
According to the resolution, bullying in California causes 160,000 students to miss school every day due to “fear of attack or intimidation by their peers.” It states that “both bullies and their victims are more likely to drop out of school and engage in unlawful activity.” School violence and suicides have also, famously, been connected to bullying.
Growing awareness of the seriousness of the problem extends across the country, even to the highest office. On March 10, President Barack Obama convened a gathering of about 150 educators, researchers, staff, parents, and bully victims to shine a light on bullying and its consequences.
“With big ears and the name that I have, I wasn’t immune,” Obama was quoted as saying.
The purpose of the conference was to encourage schools and communities to cooperate in efforts to control bullying and take actions to stop it. Obama said it’s not a rite of passage, “part of growing up” or a harmless example of the “kids will be kids” adage. Nor does it “build character,” as some people say.
According to an Associated Press story, White House officials estimate that one-third of America’s children, or about 13 million kids, have been bullied, leading to increasing drop-out rates, discipline problems in school, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, self-destructive tendencies, violence and even death.
Cyber-bullying, in particular, has increased at alarming rates and has fueled worries about the changing dimensions of bullying and its potential for far-reaching detrimental effects that go well beyond playground torment.
Obama tied bullying to the over-arching concern of America’s academic preparedness for college, the workplace and international competitiveness. Kids can’t learn if they don’t feel safe at school.
A new Web site was unveiled at the conference, www.stopbullying.gov, managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, in partnership with the departments of Education and Justice. The extensive site offers tips, guidance and help for teachers, parents and kids.
The San Diego Unified School District has made available on its Web site a lengthy 15-page Education Week section called “Spotlight on Bullying.” In addition, Education Week on-line offers numerous articles on bullying at the various grades, different types of bullying, prevention techniques, and other informative reports.
Dangerous old stereotypes
Bullying is defined by California’s Crime and Violence Prevention Center as words or actions that are “habitual harassing, intimidating, tormenting, browbeating, humiliating, terrorizing, oppressing and/or threatening.” Bullying, the center says, “has no social, financial or cultural boundaries,” and children often become bullies by watching adult behavior.
An article in Education Week’s Feb. 23, 2011 issue reports on a study showing that bullies aren’t always the social outcasts people often think they are. After four years of surveying over 3,700 middle and high school students, University of California Davis assistant sociology professor Robert Faris found that “students in the middle of the social hierarchies at their schools, rather than the most popular or the most socially outcast, are more likely to be bullies.”
Faris said in the report, “These kids view aggression as one tactic for gaining or maintaining their social status.” Other ways to climb the social ladder, he said, include being pretty, funny, athletic, rich and even just being nice.
Physical aggression is easy to spot, Faris said in the report, but more troubling, more common, and harder to detect is a more subtle form of aggression that includes manipulation, verbal remarks, gossip and social exclusion. It’s the need to gain power and status by putting others down, said one educator in the report.
Faris concludes by noting that “old stereotypes of school bullies are dangerous in the modern world.”
Another Education Week report on the subject revealed that adolescent girls are more likely than boys to have experienced cyber-bullying, 25.1 percent compared to 16.6 percent. Girls also reported cyber-bullying others more than boys, 21.3 percent to 17.5 percent.
The types of cyber-bullying were found to differ by gender: “Girls are more likely to spread rumors, while boys are more likely to post hurtful pictures or videos.”
The 2010 report used data from a random sampling of 10- to 18-year-old students from one large school district in the south and was presented by the Cyberbullying Research Center [www.cyberbullying.us], which offers resources. Other Web sites with information on cyber-bullying include: the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use at www.cyberbully.org, Stop Cyberbullying [www.stopcyberbullying.org], and Wired Safety www.wiredsafety.org.
County workshop held
A March 15 workshop on bullying, sponsored by the San Diego County Office of Education and the Chula Vista Police Department, was led by SDCOE’s Project Specialist for Student Support Services, Mara Madrigal-Weiss, who said old assumptions about bullying are still being used but are ineffective. These include tactics like peer mediation, conflict resolution, posters declaring a bully-free zone, and bringing the bully and victim together and having them “work it out.”
Madrigal-Weiss collaborated with Chula Vista Police Dept. Public Safety Analyst Melanie Culuko to explain national trends in bullying and successful research-based tactics to reduce and prevent it. According to Madrigal-Weiss, bullying is happening in every district and every campus.
The half-day workshop, called “Best Practices in Bullying Prevention,” filled early with a maximum of 70 participants, so another session will be held May 16.
Attendee Mary Marun, a counselor at a K-2 elementary school in the Solana Beach School District, said the workshop gave her new insights into the problem, including a new focus on the importance of the bystander who she said can be a big help in stopping bullying.
“I was surprised at how much emphasis they put now on the bystander,” Marun said. “They encourage that you talk to the bystanders because they’re your eyes and ears out there.”
Marun said a large part of the workshop discussed how bullying has changed over the years. “A lot of times before, kids were just left to work things out on their own, and now we’re feeling that kids get pushed to the side and need to be tended to by adults,” she said.
Cyber-bullying was one focus of the workshop. But the kind of traditional bullying that many adults remember, where kids have fist fights or shake down other kids for lunch money, still occurs with older children, said Marun. “Kids are still pressured and pushed around,” she said.
The workshop discussed how bullying gets more sophisticated as kids move into upper grades, particularly the middle school years, Marun said. “That’s when kids start getting a little more savvy for social relationships and dynamics, so they start understanding a little more the power that they might have over other people and start to figure out how they fit into that dynamic,” she said.
“The prevention part is the big key,” Marun said.
Bullying, all educators agree, has become a very serious problem for schools, because it interferes with learning if kids don’t want to come to school or don’t feel safe. Some video from the SDCOE workshop showed children sitting at their desks in class, “stressing about going out to lunch and being bullied,” Marun said. “Their stomachs would just churn before they’d go to recess because they’d be all worried. That certainly would interfere with your paying attention in class.”
Marun said educators are becoming more and more alarmed. “I think they’re pretty much on top of it and paying a lot of attention to it now whereas they didn’t before,” she said.