Before a lightly attended, but often impassioned audience, the Bethel School District held an evening forum on bullying, harassment and intimidation May 3.
Held at Bethel High School, site of pronounced racial strife a few years ago, the forum was a hybrid affair, with an introductory presentation by bullying expert Sue Eastgard offered first, and then followed by a discussion of Bethel policies and procedures – led by the BSD school board – that included several lively rounds of questioning by concerned parents.
Eastgard, a Bellevue-based school consultant and director of the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, has been working with Bethel during the current school year to help the district develop a comprehensive bullying prevention program.
As Eastgard dug into her subject, it became clear that the issue of bullying has many complicated facets, often thorny ones for a bureaucratic system to resolve. For instance: exactly what is bullying? When does gossip and teasing become bullying, harassment or intimidation?
Eastgard said that for an unpleasant social interaction to be considered bullying, three elements need to exist: first, the impact must be hurtful; secondly, the intent must be a desire to inflict that pain, and lastly, there needs to be a “power differential,” meaning that there must be a tangible, physical difference between the bully and the victim, such as size, age, or level of social sophistication.
Eastgard also acknowledge that bullying comes in many different forms, such as indirect verbal assaults like the whispering between catty young women, or cyber attacks in social media.
“Bullying has escalated as the use of social media has increased,” Ms. Eastgard said. “Social media, like Facebook, has increased the spread of problematic behaviors.”
Eastgard displayed a pronounced psychological perspective on bullying, and said that she does not use the word “victim” in her presentation, but prefers the word “target.”
Further, she said that targets of bullies are not powerless but instead have numerous options of confronting their harassers, such as telling an adult and insisting on justice being done. Further, Eastgard said that families and schools need to teach students how to say “No.”
“Teach your kids how to say, ‘Stop that. I don’t like it,’” Eastgard recommended.
One of the parents in the audience interjected that teaching children to give “I messages” also works to defuse a confrontation, stressing the “I” of “I want you to stop. I don’t like that.”
“Don’t teach retaliation,” added the parent.
In addition, Eastgard said that anyone can be a target of bullies, as potential power differentials are numerous.
“You could be bullied because you’re too smart, or not smart enough; or you’re too tall or too short,” Eastgard said.
She also described that bullying can take place in many environments, such as playgrounds, bus stops, or on the way home from school.
“School buses are places that are fraught with opportunities for bullying,” Eastgard said.
Eastgard said that the primary psychological dynamic that drives a bully is a lack of self-esteem. She also said that bullies can come from good homes, and that a strife-filled home life is not necessarily a factor in leading someone to be a bully.
She also revealed startling statistics of the tragic results of bullying, such as 13% of 8th graders nationwide report they attempted suicide in response to a bullying attack.
In addition, both bullies and their victims also suffer other significant impacts, including increased mental health issue such as chronic loneliness and depression, increased dropping-out from school and diminished academic performance. Also, bullies, particularly those who are resistant to counseling or other interventions, often tangle with law enforcement and frequently trade school time for juvenile detention.
“Bullying is really a community problem, not just a school problem,” Eastgard said.
She also said that preventing bullying and helping the targets is an on-going process, and requires a broad and comprehensive response.
“The number one thing you can do is listen. Listen to your kid describe the hurt,” Eastgard said, adding that adults often want to fix their children’s problems and are too quick to give advice.
Eastgard also mentioned several bullying prevention programs that school can implement, such as “Steps to Respect,” but unfortunately the details of these interventions were not specifically described.
However, Eastgard did say that schools and families need to do a better job in teaching coping skills to children.
“Every child needs to be able to problem-solve,” said Eastgard. “They need to know how to see choices and weigh consequences.”
More importantly, Eastgard said that children need to learn how to make and keep friends.
Further, she said that parents need to model positive, non-intimidating behaviors.
“How do you cope when life gets hard?” she asked the audience, “like when you get cut-off in traffic or you get less-than-perfect service from a waitress? Teens don’t listen – they watch!”
After Eastgard finished her presentation, the Bethel School Board took the stage and Assistant Superintendent Ann Varkados led a discussion on the steps BSD is taking to upgrade the district’s bullying prevention program, and identified several new aspects being implemented.
Most notable will be the designation of a single BSD staff member to organize the district’s prevention program and to be the “go-to-person” for every bullying incident, including overseeing the investigation and resulting interventions.
In addition, the district is streamlining the complaint process, and will now allow anonymous accusations.
“However, receiving a complaint with a source name will help us in the investigation,” said GK principal Jennifer Bethman, who is heading the district’s effort to develop its new bullying prevention program.
Bethman said there will be four main components to the new Bethel initiative: one, the district will interview all parties in the dispute; two, the district will contact all parents involved; three, the results of the investigation will be shared; fourth, there will be an appeal process for all individuals.
However, Bethman and Varkados said that the district will not reveal the specifics of the disciplinary actions.
“Federal regulations, FERPA, require us to protect the privacy of all students, so we are prevented from sharing that information,” Ms. Varkados said.
Nevertheless, Bethman said the discipline would be progressive, and would also include “wrap-around services” such as counseling and skills building.
However, the specifics of those interventions were not described, again, another failing of the forum, although some of the details were revealed during the questions and answer period, such as a counseling segment that would require a bully to attend group sessions composed of their victims, so that they could hear first-hand how their behavior has impacted their victims.
In addition, bullies may be required to write apologies or acknowledgements to their victims.
Further, significant role-playing instruction, starting as early as first grade, is already in place to help children learn how to stop a bully in a positive way.
With all this, however, many parents did not seem satisfied, and told school officials numerous stories of an unresponsive system, one that seemingly lacks the will or skills to prevent bullying.
“Nothing was done,” was a refrain uttered by several parents when describing their frustrations with the administration, principals or teachers that they approached for help when their child complained of bullying at school.
The details of these incidents were difficult to ascertain because the school board did not want to discuss individual complaints in a public setting, but the number of unhappy families indicated that Bethel clearly has a credibility issue in terms of effectively dealing with bullying.
“Predators are scamming the system,” one mother told the board. “Then, the “targets” get victimized by the school when they, the victims, get angry with not having anything done and they act-out.”
Based upon the stories told by parents at the forum, serious bullying occurs at all levels of school – from elementary through high school.
One father angrily told of how his sophomore daughter was surrounded by ten senior girls and verbally assaulted. This behavior was repeated several times over a period of time, and despite the father’s attempts to have the school stop the seniors they were unable to, and eventually a fight broke out, and the father’s daughter was suspended for fighting.
In later conversation, the father did acknowledge that the diversity counselor for Bethel, Nick Jones, did make a personal intervention in the daughter’s situation and the problems dissipated. The father also told the audience he was satisfied with Jones’ effort on his family’s behalf.
Modeling superb listening skills, the board listened attentively to all the accusations. After the steady round of complaints tapered off, school board president John Manning spoke and assured the parents that they can work their way up the chain of command to him and the other board members if they don’t get satisfaction at their local school.
“Building rapport is difficult,” Manning told the audience. “But if you feel you’re not getting anywhere, please let us know. Bullying is an important issue and needs to be addressed.”
Despite the earlier venom, the distressed parents seemed to find assurance from Mr. Manning’s words, and when they left the forum they appeared to be satisfied with the direction Bethel is taking in controlling bullying.
© 2011 The Mountain News
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