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Principal: Bullying going high-tech

Bullying, a fact of life during adolescence, is taking on new forms as young people put technology into play, say the principals at Muirlands Middle and La Jolla High schools.

They’re using cell phones, voicemail, e-mail, texting and MySpace and Facebook to do what used to be done in person.

“We’ve had cases where girls will call another girl and be as vicious as can be about how they look, who they like, who doesn’t like them, boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, could be you’ll never have a boyfriend, that kind of stuff,” said Dana Shelburne, principal of La Jolla High.

He said police have been called in a few cases when parents have asked for help from the school because using a phone to harass is illegal, he added.

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The high school does not have an officer assigned to campus since it has such a low number of incidents and because of budget constraints, Shelburne said. Instead, the counseling staff addresses student issues.

At Muirlands, reports of bullying have increased the past two years, said principal Chris Hargrave.

But, she added, she doesn’t know if that’s because there actually are more incidents or just more awareness of the issue.

She estimated that there were between 10 and 20 cases reported last year, with most ending up “being about kids who were friends at one time but had a falling out over new friends or someone’s boyfriend.”

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The ‘in’ word

“Bullying is kind of now the new vogue word,” she added. “Because it’s so out there and everyone is very much aware that it occurs on campuses, on the telephone, Internet, wherever that we have to investigate every allegation … to determine whether or not the kid’s just annoying you or teasing you.”

Cyberbulling seems more common among girls than boys, she said.

The new forms of bullying are often easier to trace because they come with phone numbers or e-mail addresses, “whereas in the past you just had hearsay,” said Hargrave.

Shelburne said while boys are more physical, girls who bully are more verbal.

“Guys will get in your face and kind of try and puff up, be

physically challenging, push you, threaten you,” he said. “I don’t really find that with girls as much as it’s that verbal thing where today I’m your friend and now I’m allied with five of your enemies and we’re dishing dirt on you.”

Dealing with bullies

The La Jolla High principal said he usually approaches a reported incident by having school officials talk to the victim and then to the alleged bully to try to discern what occurred.

Often the victim, fearing retaliation, isn’t forthcoming, he added.

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“Most bullies in reality are cowards - they’re big cowards - and when they’re called on it they back down because suddenly they don’t have what they thought was power,” said Shelburne.

At Muirlands, Hargrave said the goal is “to protect the victim if at all possible.”

The best-case scenario is when a victim agrees to confront the perpetrator, the staff tries to figure out why the situation occurred, Hargrave said.

“We would never have the victim meet with the bully if they were uncomfortable,” she added later in an e-mail. When they do meet, she wrote, “students begin to see how their actions are hurtful and harmful when they hear how their actions made the victim feel.”

Involving parents

Shelburne said he finds some parents of bullies in denial about their child’s behavior, but added that most parents support the administrator’s actions because they present information clearly indicating the student has an established pattern.

Shelburne said he believes the key to dealing with bullying is to make it clear to students what behaviors are unacceptable.

“I’m a big believer in drawing nice clear lines for students, and you can’t blur the lines, you can’t make it wishy-washy,” he said. “If you say this is going to happen, if you miss and then you don’t do it, you’ve taught them a really good lesson that you’re full of hot air and so you’ve confused them.”

Gina McGalliard is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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