The Facts About Bullying: San Diego district attorney’s office holds talks to end the scourge, La Jolla schools weigh-in on discussion

By Catherine Ivey Lee

Spreading rumors. Hitting, kicking and pushing. Sending cruel texts. Posting embarrassing photos of someone else.

Every day, across the country, bullies torment children with such cruelty. Nationally, one out of every four children ages 12-18 has been bullied. Millions of students suffer low-self esteem, poor grades, anxiety and depression. For some, the pain proves too much. Two years ago, 13-year-old Seth Walsh from Tehachapi, Calif., hung himself from a tree in his backyard after being repeatedly bullied. Last year, bullied teens in more than five states also committed suicide.

In response to growing concerns, San Diego law enforcement officials are working to educate the public about the issue. In La Jolla, schools and students are fighting to create campus atmospheres that discourage bullies and bullying.

“Bullying is not okay,” Deputy District Attorney Elizabeth Renner told an audience of students, parents, police officers and teachers at a recent presentation sponsored by the Rancho Bernardo Community Council. Renner, who prosecutes juvenile cases and works on school violence issues, said her office has a two-month backlog on such talks.

Combating bullying starts with understanding it and reporting it, Renner said. Bullying is more than just roughhousing, in which individuals don’t intend to injure each other. Bullying is repeated aggressive behavior by one or more persons toward another with the intent to harm him or her.

There must also be an imbalance in power between the individuals involved, with the bully or bullies using size, popularity or strength to dominate or intimidate the other.

Direct bullying takes place face to face, such as when victims are assaulted, threatened, intentionally excluded, vilified or have property stolen or vandalized. Often physical in nature, this type of bullying more frequently involves boys.

Cyberbullying involves attacks using technology such as cell phones, computers, or social media sites to spread rumors, post humiliating photos and comments or to send cruel texts or e-mails. Perhaps due to its more social medium, girls are more likely to be engaged in cyberbullying, Renner said. Cyberbullying, which many believe is on the rise, is considered particularly heinous because it can reach victims at all hours.

“It’s bullying that’s almost 24/7,” Renner said. “It’s really hard to get away from.”

Because victims are often reluctant to speak up — only one in three is likely to tell an adult what is going on — experts advise parents and teachers to be alert to unexplained injuries, attempts to avoid school, a sudden loss of friends or changed behavior after using technology or social media. Talk of suicide should be taken seriously.

Parents should report bullying to school officials, Renner said, and keep records of each incident. Printing offensive texts, e-mails or images can aide law enforcement officials who might otherwise need warrants to access such information, she said.

She also encouraged parents to discuss appropriate technology use with children, to know passwords and to “trust but verify” online activity. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had parents tell me, ‘My child would never post something like that,’” only to be shocked when Renner pulled out evidence to the contrary.

She urged students to be proactive bystanders, a relatively new tactic in combating bullying. “If you see someone being cyberbullied, tell someone,” she said.

That approach proved successful recently at La Jolla High School. When photos of several students, along with mean comments, appeared online, members of a student club known as V.A.C.H.I. (Voices Against Cruelty, Hatred and Intolerance) voiced their disapproval and disgust. The images quickly disappeared, according to club president Katie Harmeyer. “We’re trying to teach every student to take a stand,” she said.

School Principal Dana Shelburne credits groups like V.A.C.H.I., which will hold a “Week Without Name Calling” in January, assemblies and a student mentor program with creating an atmosphere that discourages bullying.

“We talk about the idea that we come together as a family for 6-8 hours a day and it needs to be a safe environment for everyone,” he said.

Schools are also urging students to “think before they click.” At The Children’s School, Technology Director Jesse Brand reminds middle-schoolers to act in cyberspace just as they would elsewhere. “We talk about what it means to be a good friend and to be respectful and how the computer is not a place where the rules don’t apply,” Brand said.

Students at Muirlands Middle School talk about bullying and making positive choices in class discussions and are rewarded for being “respectful, responsible and academic” as part of a school campaign, according to Vice Principal Jeffrey Luna. In December, students will attend an assembly on gossip, rumors and cyber bullying.

Did you know?

■ October is National Bullying Prevention Month■

Bullying can affect everyone; bullies pick on socially isolated students, popular students and everyone in between.

■ Children with special needs or who are perceived as different — whether because of their race, religion, size or even status as newcomers to a school —are at a higher risk for being bullied.■

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