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School face tricky task of combating bullying

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012 5:20 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012 10:34 a.m. CDT

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As communities start to recognize that bullying is a problem that needs to be addressed, one question must be asked: Have we done enough to prevent it?

Many point to schools as being on the front line of preventing bullying. But as any teacher knows, sometimes that is not so easy.

“People have a lot of sympathy for educators today who don’t have an easy job to deal with bullies,” said Hank Nuwer, a journalist and national hazing expert. “A lot of it is underground. You can’t be with a student 24 hours a day. It isn’t like someone is going to bully in front of a teacher or administrator. It’s more of a hidden, call it sneaky, type of behavior.”

In a joint survey by the Regional Office of Education and the Northwest Herald, McHenry County educators who responded said that oftentimes parents and children do not have a clear definition of what bullying is, and more importantly, what bullying is not.

“What is one student’s harmless kidding or teasing, to the person who is getting teased may not be so benign,” Nuwer said.

Those who responded to the survey said a child’s and parent’s understanding of bullying may differ from a school’s written policies.

“I feel parents are quick to jump to the term ‘bullying’ after one incident,” one respondent wrote. “Bullying is something that happens repeatedly over time; a one-time offense should be treated as an isolated incident until it happens again.”

Another respondent said: “There is definite bullying going on in schools. However, I have students reporting anything that resembles conflict as bullying. [Eighty percent] of what is reported would not be considered bullying by its definition.”

The survey answers were anonymous.

The state’s Bullying Prevention Task Force tried to define bullying. When state legislators expanded the state’s bullying policies in 2010, lawmakers also approved creating the task force.

Peggy Thurow, principal of District 300’s Algonquin Middle School, was part of the task force and charged with exploring the causes and consequences of bullying, and identifying tools and a framework to implement bullying prevention efforts in schools.

In its recommendations, the task force urged educators to engage the entire school community – parents, teachers, staff and students – in bullying prevention, and called for a unified approach.

“I think when you have a system that identifies needs and what needs look like, you are better able to offer a solution,” Thurow said.

Bullying is defined as acts of repeated and intentional behavior, either verbal or physical, that occur to intentionally harm others. There are two key words there: repeated and intentional.But even with the best bullying policies in place and everyone on board, sometimes schools still struggle when an incident occurs.

Heather Dice’s son is a seventh-grader at District 200’s Creekside Middle School. Steven is “very, very small” and a target for taunts. Dice asked that the Northwest Herald not use Steven’s last name, which is different from her own.

Last spring, a new bullying tactic emerged. Steven’s classmates started a game called “Chase Steven” or “Get Steven,” in which they chased him around and sat on him until he couldn’t breathe.

About that same time, a classmate picked Steven up by his ankles and dropped him. Steven ran away, his mother said, but this happened several more times until Steven decided to take matters into his own hands.

He punched his tormentor.

While no adults witnessed the first incidents, Dice said, a teacher saw Steven hit the other student. Steven was suspended.

“They just said that hitting’s not acceptable. But what is he supposed to do?” Dice said. “I think the school is blaming the victim. The school has all these anti-bullying seminars, but then when there’s an incident, they blame the victim.”

“As you are aware, school districts are prohibited from publicly discussing student disciplinary matters,” District 200 spokeswoman Carol Smith said in an email to the Northwest Herald.Had Steven reported the bullying, or a teacher seen the previous incidents, things could have ended differently.

The joint study asked county educators how likely students are to report bullying; 74 percent reported that students are “often” or “likely” to complain of being bullied.

It appears that younger children are more likely to report bullying incidents to an adult, but that figure decreases as the students get older. And when it comes to things that happen outside of a school’s four walls, students are even less likely to report incidents, school officials said.

“It’s a difficult thing. Kids, especially the older ones, are less likely to report what’s happening off campus,” Regional Superintendent Leslie Schermerhorn said. “It’s a big gray area. At what point does the school step in?”

The lines are blurred on exactly how far schools can take enforcement of bullying incidents that happen off campus.

When asked how often educators respond to cyberbullying-related issues that happen in school or off campus, 54 percent of the respondents said “never.”

“I’m not sure the school has the authority to step in,” Assistant Regional Superintendent Michael Anderson said. “It’s a matter between kids, parents and law enforcement.”

As the face of bullying changes, school administrators are struggling to keep up with the times. Cyberbullying most often happens outside of school.

“Look at cellphone policies – five, six years ago there were none,” McHenry High School West Campus Assistant Principal Carl Vallianatos said. “Now we’re hit with a wave of stuff that is considered nontraditional bullying, and I don’t think schools know how to respond.”

His school implemented a policy in which students can anonymously drop off mean, cruel or hurtful posts they see on Facebook or other social media websites. The offending students are called into a conference and a file on the student’s misdeeds is kept in the front office.

“Schools should always be involved,” Vallianatos said. “A child should always be able to come to an adult. If it’s the well-being of our students, it’s always our business.”

• Northwest Herald Senior Editor Dan McCaleb contributed to this report.

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