Safe Schools initiative assesses bullying problem in local schools; hot button issue sparks national debate

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(Illustration by Dongyun Lee)

Thirteen-year-old Alexis is a talented singer who reads at an 11th grade
level. She says she wants to go to college and then law school, so she can become a lawyer and “defend people who can’t defend themselves.” Her mother, Samantha, makes sure she frequently tells her daughter that she is both smart and beautiful. But Alexis, a seventh-grader at Buford Middle School, pays more attention to what others say about her. And lots of it is ugly.

“This year has been really hard,” her mom said. “One of the kids’ favorite things to call her is ‘blackneck’ because the pigmentation on her neck is dark. Some nights, Alexis scrubs her neck so hard in the shower that it turns beet red, even though I tell her, ‘That’s your skin tone. You can’t wash that off.’”

According to Samantha, Alexis has been kicked, pushed, and hit while at school. Other students have splashed her with water in the bathroom and many have called her names. After Alexis’ father died in November, the “dead daddy” jokes started, she said, and haven’t stopped.

Were it not for a Buford guidance counselor—“a godsend,” Samantha calls her—who has an open-door policy and is available to Alexis whenever she needs to talk, Samantha’s not sure how her daughter would make it through the school day.

“Being part of the choir has helped a little bit because she gets complimented about her voice. But Alexis is really defensive a lot of the time; she thinks nobody likes her…She has a couple friends, and sometimes they take up for her [when the taunting starts], but a lot of times they are quiet. Or they join in. And then they’re nice to her the next day.”

I’ll be 50 years old this summer, and I still haven’t entirely recovered from a pack of middle school mean girls who made me doubt everything from the brand of jeans I wore to the grape jelly I smeared on my daily PB&J sandwich. Thirty-eight years later, I remember the names of every one of those girls. What I don’t recall, is a single newspaper article or television report about the repercussions of bullying. Nobody talked about a Phoebe Prince or a Tyler Clemente or a Lexi Pilkington, students who have made headlines in recent years when they killed themselves after being pushed to the brink by the brutality of others. In 1974, President Ford was more interested in promoting his “Whip Inflation Now” campaign than in hosting a conference on bullying prevention like the one introduced at the White House in early March by President and Mrs. Obama.

Bully, a recently released documentary that made headlines after it received an R-rating for language, examines the effects of bullying on five different children. (The Weinstein Company)

Bully pulpit
“Have you heard about the group of girls who are being so awful to everyone?” a mother asked me during a sixth-grade volleyball game last month. At a dinner party the following week, a teacher told me that the behavior in an elementary school class had so deteriorated that a high school coach was called in to speak to the students about the importance of working together, about cheering for one another and not rooting for others to fail.

In his review of Bully—a just-released and much-hyped film—New York Times critic A. O. Scott said the “moving and troubling documentary about the misery some children inflict upon others, arrives at a moment when bullying, long tolerated as a fact of life, is being redefined as a social problem.” Yet a March 12 Time magazine article claimed “as painful as bullying can be, and as horrible as its victims’ scars may be, research suggests that the talk of an epidemic may be exaggerated.”

Who’s right? Do we all need to take a deep breath, calm down, and just let “kids be kids”? Or are we really in the thick of a bullying epidemic?

To help figure this out, Albemarle-Charlottesville Safe Schools/Healthy Students administers an annual Peer Support Survey, which allows students in grades four through 12 to anonymously write down the names of those who are possible bullying victims. Counselors talk to children whose names appear multiple times, in hopes of determining if intervention or assistance is needed. By conducting this survey in the fall, “the schools and SS/HS hope to identify students in any potentially harmful situations before [too much of] the school year has gone by,” said Lois Wallenhorst, project coordinator for Safe Schools.

Each spring, the organization also “seeks information about many factors that can affect students’ school performance,” including school safety, relationships with peers, substance abuse, and other risk behaviors, Wallenhorst said. Bullying, according to the survey, is “the use of one’s strength or popularity to injure, threaten, or embarrass another person. Bullying can be physical, verbal, or social. It is not bullying when two students of about the same strength argue or fight.”

After reading that definition, students are asked whether they have been bullied in the past month “never,” “once or twice,” “about once per week” or “several times per week.” In addition, they are questioned about physical, verbal, social, and cyber bullying, as well as where bullying has taken place and whether they have reported it to anyone.

June Jenkins, Albemarle-Charlottesville project director for Safe Schools, said bullying peaks in the late elementary and early middle school years because “as kids mature and develop, anything that’s different can become a target. Size, shape, clothes, mannerisms…anything.” One of the best ways to combat it is for parents to “have a conversation with your children before it happens,” and to be on the lookout “for changes like a drop in grades; a change in attitude; not wanting to do things they used to enjoy; a refusal to ride the school bus. Talk to them. Ask them specific questions…who they sat with at lunch, who they played with during recess.”

According to Jenkins, grown-up supervision should be increased at this age since “typically, bullying happens when adults aren’t around,” which means it often falls to other children to report the abuse. Friends are important because they are frequently the ones who ask for help, and kids need to be taught the difference between snitching and seeking assistance. Self-confidence is another key to bullying prevention. It is “a great shield,” Jenkins added. Confident students are “very comfortable with themselves,” which is unappealing to bullies. Those children are also often “the bystanders who will stand up and defend others; they will know that they should do something to help and protect” a child who is being picked on.
Ignoring a bully may work too because bullies “look for an audience,” Jenkins said. If kids walk away, they aren’t giving the bully the attention or the satisfaction. It’s no longer cool.
The anti-bullying initiatives of organizations like Safe Schools, which was started in 2009 with a four-year, $5.8 million government grant, combined with heightened attention in schools, homes, and the media, may explain a SS/HS report that showed over a two-year period (spring 2009 to spring 2011) the number of students who claim they were bullied at least once in the past 30 days dropped 22 percent in high schools, 16 percent in middle schools, and 6 percent in elementary schools. But the report also indicated that 34 percent of elementary school students, 28 percent of middle school students, and 18 percent of high school students said they had been bullied.

 

“We want our students to want to come to school,” said Victoria Megginson, a teacher and the anti-bullying coordinator at Jack Jouett. (Photo by John Robinson)

Net flicks
It’s an unseasonably warm Monday in March, and Jack Jouett Middle School principal Kathryn Baylor is pissed off. A fight broke out earlier in the afternoon, and Baylor has just come from an impromptu meeting with the irate mother of one of the children involved in the contretemps. But it’s not the fight—or even a livid, shouting parent—that’s rattled Baylor. She’s angry with the students who didn’t look for an adult to intervene and put a stop to the dust-up. Instead, they watched, cheered, and recorded the incident on their cell phones. And then, quicker than anyone could say “Friend me,” they posted it on Facebook, where it immediately received dozens of “Likes.”

Baylor demanded that the episode be removed from Facebook, which, to her relief, it was. “These are good kids, but all the Internet stuff has taken up most of our worlds now,” she said, looking down at her new silver Apple computer that she admitted she’s still figuring out.
According to a recent Associated Press-MTV poll on Internet behavior, more than half of 1,355 teenagers and young adults surveyed (56 percent) said they have been harassed or bullied online. That’s up from 50 percent in 2009.

“The tools are so different now,” Jenkins admitted. “When we were kids we could get away from it. Now it can follow children into their homes and their bedrooms.” Added Wallenhorst: “Those situations can have a lasting impact on kids’ feelings about school, their self-esteem and worth, not to mention their ability to achieve and be successful at school.”

As part of the It Gets Better Project, a nationwide anti-bullying campaign, the University of Virginia’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) Resource Center is using the Internet in a positive way with a four-and-a-half minute video in which older students and UVA faculty remind younger kids that their lives really will improve. “High school and middle school are pretty tough to deal with for pretty much everybody,” University of Virginia freshman Joe Leonard says on the video. “But it’s even harder if you’re a member of the LGBT community…You think [the abuse] is going to go on forever, but it’s not” he promised, thanks to the resources at places like UVA, and the awareness of its faculty, staff, and students.

“The older we get, the better and the stronger we get,” said Ed Warwick, coordinator of the University’s LGBT Resource Center, which has held panels at Charlottesville, Fluvanna, and Tandem schools, among others, aimed at helping teachers and guidance counselors be “supportive of people on their journey of development.” Warwick admitted that the It Gets Better video may not change everyone’s life, “but if a high school student finds it, and she feels better on a bad night” then it’s done its job. Bullying isn’t just being pushed or called a name, and it doesn’t go away—even when you’re an adult, he said. “But it’s important to not feel afraid to ask for help. If folks aren’t reporting these things, then how can we help? We all have the responsibility to make things better.”

 

According to Jack Jouett Middle School Assistant Principal Steve Saunders, bullying is often “overt,” but not always as obvious as other behaviors, which “can be a tough thing for an 11-year-old to figure out.” (Photo by John Robinson)

Point of access
“My nightmare scenario is one in which we don’t get to a student in time after we’ve heard about a suspected bullying incident, and then the bullying continues, and the student ends up feeling less empowered,” said Steve Saunders, Jack Jouett Middle School assistant principal. “The student had a voice, he or she tried to get help from an adult, but then nothing happened. That’s a devastating scenario.”

The key to preventing this, Saunders said, is “multiple access points,” meaning a student might feel comfortable first talking to the school nurse or a bus driver or a teacher or a coach. Somebody who will then give that information to administrators and/or school counselors who are trained to deal with the problem, and who can pursue it further and work with both the victim and the bully. “This is particularly important with suspected incidents of bullying because it allows [school officials] to track patterns of behavior,” he said.
But “discipline in middle school is often gray,” Saunders added. “Bullying can sometimes be very overt, but sometimes it is not as obvious as other behaviors.” Hitting someone “is certainly mean—and unacceptable—but it may not necessarily be bullying. That can be a tough thing for an 11-year-old to figure out. At the end of the day, our job is to teach students the skills to handle these situations responsibly.”

Victoria Megginson, a language arts teacher and Jouett’s anti-bullying coordinator, recalled a recent effective and eye-opening moment when Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Darby Lowe spoke to students about the legal consequences of bullying. Students learned from Lowe that some of the actions they think are a joke—threatening language or texts or e-mails—could land them in a heap of trouble.

Jack Jouett Middle School is “a good place to be,” Megginson said. “We as teachers are happy to be here, and, for the most part, the kids are too. But we’re always looking for things we can do to make our kids feel comfortable. We want them to want to come to school.”

“We’re not perfect,” Saunders added. “You can have all of the structure in place and be proactive, but you certainly can’t predict or control everything.” Sometimes, “we miss things and we make mistakes. But if a really reticent sixth-grader is being bullied and he knows he can trust somebody, that there’s somebody at school who will help him, and we encourage him to share with an adult what is happening…then we can work with him and we can address the problem in an appropriate way. After that, usually the bullying will stop, and the victim knows that he stood up for himself.”

Seventh-grade Alexis tries to stand up for herself every day, according to her mother, who said she has no idea why her daughter first became a target a couple years ago, while a student at Walker Upper Elementary School. Samantha initially “thought this was a phase, and it would stop, but it hasn’t. I’ve gone through a lot of guilt about not doing enough to help my daughter. I’ve cried because I don’t know how to help her.”

Alexis said she struggles to understand why some of her peers “think it is O.K. to pick other people apart. They go home and forget about the mean things they say and do, but I think about them all night and dread the next day and what’s to come.” But like the students in the UVA video, Alexis said she knows “it will get better.”

Maybe as soon as next fall, when she’ll attend a different middle school. In the meantime, her mother continues to “constantly remind her that ‘you can’t let [the bullies] win.’ I tell her to focus on her school work; that someday she will be someone, and that will be the best revenge.”

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