Archive for Wednesday, November 5, 2003

Students grapple with bullying

Parents disappointed by response from school district

November 5, 2003

Debby Reed is tired of the bullying.

Reed, whose 12-year-old son attends classes at a Jefferson County middle school, said the bullying has not only hurt her son's feelings -- it has resulted in bruises.

"I've been in daily contact with the principal of our school," Reed said. "I've gone so far as to say something to the boy that was bullying my son, so it's either going to make it worse for my son when I'm not around or it's going to make an impact."

Parents of children caught in this situation may feel helpless and isolated.

They are anything but alone.

The Tonganoxie student handbook list of Class II offenses includes:

¢ Student or staff harassment: The Tonganoxie School District prohibits any form of sexual, racial, religious and disability harassment. It shall be a violation of this policy for any pupil, teacher, administrator or other school personnel of the school district to harass a pupil, teacher, administrator or other school personnel through conduct or communication of a sexual nature or regarding religion, disability and race as defined by this policy. Sexual, racial, religious and disability harassment defined as: Sexual harassment: Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexually motivated physical conduct or other verbal or physical conduct or communication of a sexual nature. Racial harassment: Physical or verbal conduct relating to an individual's race. Religious harassment: Physical or verbal conduct which is related to an individual's religion. Disability harassment: Physical or verbal conduct which is related to an individual's disability.

¢ Threatening of another student: The intentional unlawful threat or intimidation by word or act to do violence to the person or property of another student or the doing or any act which creates a well founded fear within the other person. Consequences of Class II offenses for elementary, junior high and high school students:

¢ In-school conference with student

¢ Detentions

¢ Referral to school counselor

¢ Parent/guardian conference

¢ Contracts/probation

¢ In-school suspension

¢ Short-term suspension

¢ Extended suspension

¢ Long-term suspension

¢ Expulsion

¢ Junior high and high school penalties also include Saturday school.

Bullying is nothing new. And, according to a 2002 report by the U.S. Department of Justice, bullying happens around the globe.

Steve Lee, director of the school psychology program at the University of Kansas, said schools pay more attention to bullying now than ever before.

"I think it's gotten a lot more attention because of some of the more violent acts happening at schools and I think some of these folks view the bullying as a precursor to some of these acts," Lee said.

Zero tolerance

The Tonganoxie school district has zero tolerance for bullying, said board president Rick Lamb.

"Basically we have a no-tolerance policy and we ask our principals and all the staff to help enforce it," Lamb said.

This means the district tries to ensure students are supervised as much as possible.

"Our principals and staff are out in the hallways," Lamb said. "They're trying to take notice of things that happen."

But sometimes, bullies strike anyway.

When they do, concerned parents should talk to teachers and school principals, Lamb said. If they're not satisfied, they should contact the superintendent, and then, if still not satisfied, the school board.

Even then, do parents routinely get the answers they're seeking?

"No they don't sometimes," Lamb said. "But I can tell you we are still vigilant about it, and because of the world in which we live, we have to document things -- we have our staff document any incidents that take place, as well as conversations with parents."

Mike Bogart, THS principal, said he takes a tough stance against bullying.

"I think if there's one bullying instance going on that's one too many," Bogart said. "If that's the case we try to stop any and all of it."

The bottom line

Recently, board members met with parents of two students whom the parents say were bullied and harassed at school.

One parent said his son had been bullied for four years, through junior high and into high school. A number of students have taunted the boy, the father said.

And, the father added, his son's grades suffer whenever the teasing occurs.

"As long as everything's going pretty good, his grades are pretty good," the father said. "But when they start riding him, his grades go down."

According to the father, the bullying directed toward his son leans toward verbal sexual harassment.

"Harassment is going on and nothing is being done and that's the bottom line," the father said. "There is no one there that you can walk up to and say this is a problem -- why isn't it being fixed."

This parent is not alone.

Parents of a junior high student echoed his comment.

"Everyone's passing the buck," this student's father said.

In this couple's case, a group of students have picked on their son since he was in the fourth grade. The parents said elementary school teachers and Principal Jerry Daskoski effectively stopped the bullying at the grade school. However, the parents said the bullying did continue off school grounds -- to the extent that police were contacted at least once.

When the student moved to junior high, the in-school bullying started again, the parents said. And although the school has taken measures to stop it, the harassment has continued.

"You feel like there is no support, nobody backing the parents," the mother said. "If there's a teacher problem you go to the principal and the principal backs the teachers. You go to the superintendent and he backs the principal and you go to the school board and they back the superintendent. It's just a good old boy system -- they take care of each other."

Tonganoxie Superintendent Richard Erickson said the district follows a set process in dealing with parents' concerns.

"We call it a chain of command," Erickson said. "We want to use that communication process because we feel it's a very effective process in dealing with any concerns, whether it be parents, students or whoever."

This process encourages direct communication in dealing with problems at the building level.

"Then if the concern isn't satisfied, then obviously the next step is the superintendent and the third step is the board of education," Erickson said. "But I think this is an effective communication process and we want to continue to operate by it."

Board silence

Both sets of parents have met separately with school board members. But both noted that the six board members present at the meetings (there are seven members on the school board) would not discuss the situation with them -- at the advice of the school district's attorney.

The father of the high school student said, "When I went to the school board meeting, into the executive session, I was under the understanding that you talk it over and take care of it. They said that under the advice of their attorney they were not there to answer questions. It was the most ridiculous thing I've ever sat through. Some of them turned completely the other way around when I talked."

The parents of the junior high student told a similar story. The father described one board member as "rolling his eyes, fidgeting and looking at the ceiling" during their meeting.

In an interview last week, Lamb said an attorney had advised board members to refrain from discussing the situation with the parents.

Academic impact

Bullying can wield a blow to a child's academic work, said Joan Letendre, assistant professor in KU's school of social welfare.

"Kids can spend a lot of time hiding in the bathroom or just trying to stay away from the bullying," Letendre said. "Their whole lives revolve around it."

Moreover, it affects their social lives.

"You can have a normal kid with something that the bully picks on," Letendre said, "And that kid can just lose their confidence and become intimidated and lose out on things that kids do in school -- like interacting with other kids and learning."

The parents of the junior high student who has been bullied say their son's grades are good. He's an honor roll student and he's never been a discipline problem. The puzzling part of the situation is, there is no obvious reason why other students would taunt him. His parents describe him as athletic, about the same size as his peers and just "a nice kid."

But the bullying has affected him during school time, as well as during his free time. He no longer likes to ride his bicycle around town, his parents said, because of the bullying.

"Kids that are bullied ... begin to feel very intimidated," Letendre said. "Lacking in confidence they become afraid to do the things that they did before -- common things like going on the playground, on the bus, in the cafeteria. They tend to become very worried and upset about going to school."

The parents of the junior high student who is bullied would agree.

"When you go to school every day five days a week for seven or eight hours, that tears down any positive intervention you can do in four hours a night at home," said the boy's mother. "He knows he's loved, but when you're shunned and bullied five days a week ... does something actually bad have to happen before they do something about it? Until he gets hurt, or somebody gets hurt, is that what it's going to take?"

Problem solving

Steve Lee, of the University of Kansas, said although parents want to stop the bullying, they may feel as if their hands are tied.

"When their son or daughter is the victim of bullying or they don't see the problem solved, they may end up blaming the school," Lee said.

Part of the problem, he added, is that it's difficult for schools to prevent students from picking on others. But still, Lee said, it's important to try.

"I think schools need to be alert to parents who have concerns and to take their concerns seriously," Lee said.

Lee said he would encourage schools to set up student assistance teams when bullying is reported. The team would include students, teachers and, in some cases, parents.

"Parents are a good source to help out with solutions to the problems," Lee said. "If we can approach the problem from the peer perspective, the school perspective and the home perspective, we have a much better chance of affecting change," Lee said.

In situations where that change doesn't occur, parents may opt to pull their children out of school. Alternatives include home schooling, private schools or enrolling in a neighboring school district.

The parents of the Tonganoxie Junior High School student have said although they like it here and plan to stay -- if things don't improve for their child, they would look at home schooling, or enrolling all of their children in another school district.

Likewise, Debby Reed, who lives in Jefferson County and works in Lawrence, said if kids don't stop picking on her son, she might consider transferring him to the Lawrence school district.

Who's at fault

Brent Smith, assistant principal of Tonganoxie High School, said when bullying is reported, school administrators talk to the students who are involved, as well as to their parents.

Reports of bullying are infrequent at THS, Smith said, estimating there are one or two reports made during a school year.

When bullying can be verified, the school weighs the situation before deciding punishment.

"Threatening another student is considered a Class 2 offense," Smith said. "The consequences can range from an in-school conference with a student to expulsion."

Part of the difficulty in dealing with bullying is that it often boils down to one person's word against another's, said board president Lamb.

"Because of our lawsuit-minded society, if we don't have enough evidence against the alleged bullier, then those parents could come to us with a complaint," Lamb said. "They could say all you had was one person's word, all you have is an alleged incident and you have no proof -- then why are you punishing my child?"

The parents of the junior high student have thought about this.

"I think they're worried about the other boy's parents suing," the mother said. "On the flip side, they ought to worry about us."

However, she noted, that's not likely.

"It's expensive," the mother said. "... And I just don't think it would get us anywhere -- not in a small town -- look how we've been shunned by our school board."

What's a parent to do

The mother of the junior high student said school officials are quick to call parents "overprotective."

"They say we're helicopter moms -- that we're hovering over our kids," she said. "When my child is being tormented and abused, if I don't protect him and if you don't protect him, who is? If I can't trust you to protect my child and care for him when he's in your care, then who will? That's when I have to get involved as a parent."

But Steve Woolf, TJHS principal, said the school is diligent in trying to prevent bullying.

"It's just something we constantly look for and try to deal with," Woolf said. "... I think in the past it was kind of the accepted thing that there were bullies. But now with Columbine and things like that that have happened, we have to take any kind of threat or bullying seriously."

Excessive bullying has been offered as motivation for Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two students at Columbine High School in Colorado, to kill 12 fellow students and a teacher before killing themselves. In the attacks, which occurred April 20, 1999, at school, more than 20 other people also were injured.

Consequences for breaking the rules at Tonganoxie Junior High vary. For instance, it's easier to prescribe punishment if the bullying can be verified.

"You hope you have witnesses -- you hope it isn't one person's word against another person's word," Woolf said.

And, a student's past behavior may come into play.

If a student who calls another student a bad name hasn't been in trouble before, the punishment will be light.

"But if it's a severe thing where there's threats to kill someone, that's probably going to lead to expulsion," Woolf said.

Before students walk in the door, administrators may be fully aware of their bullying history. Administrators communicate between schools, Woolf said.

"And we also have through our administrative software system a pretty decent record," Woolf said. "I'm able to know and Mr. Neas is able to know what has been documented on their behavior by looking at their files on the computer."

Repeat offenders are likely to face a more severe punishment.

"I tell a kid this last consequence didn't have any effect on you so we're going to have to up the ante a little bit," Woolf said. "Ultimately this ends in expulsion. We hate that because the kid's not in school. But in order to make this a place where teachers can teach and students can learn, you have to."

Start at the beginning

Tonganoxie Elementary School Principal Jerry Daskoski knows what it's like to be bullied. The 13-year TES administrator said he was bullied as a child. The bullying wasn't excessive or consistent, he said, but it left its mark.

"I can remember one particular boy who I felt bullied me and I was afraid to do anything to him, to retaliate or to tell anybody about it," Daskoski said.

When he hears of abuse in his school, he nips it in the bud.

"I have very strong feelings that it's something that we cannot allow to happen," Daskoski said. "That we need to take whatever corrective measures are appropriate to eliminate the bullying from taking place."

The child who is picked on may in some way stand out from his or her peers, Daskoski said.

"It's usually the person who is smaller or who has something unique about them that isn't necessarily a negative thing," Daskoski said. "... A child can have red hair or glasses and be picked on because of that."

Daskoski said he tries to get the kids to understand how all forms of bullying hurt.

"A punch on the arm will hurt for a day or two, but if they make up lies about us, tell other children to not play with us or call us particular names that are extremely embarrassing, that's the type of thing that not only does it stick with you and go down deep to your heart and soul, but those are the kinds of things that you remember when you're an adult," Daskoski said.

When he hears of one student bullying another, Daskoski said he talks to various students to try to get the facts. Then, he talks to the bullier and explains to that that particular type of bullying as well as all other types, are not allowed.

"I tell them that if that happens again you can expect to be suspended from school," Daskoski said.

If it does happen again, the parents are contacted and the student is suspended from school.

"Once I've done that, I haven't seen the bullying ever continue," Daskoski said. "It is just eliminated."

Daskoski said he believes that a core part of his job is to make the school a safe environment for children. This includes protecting them from bullying.

"It's the type of thing that you don't play around with," Daskoski said. "Even at the elementary level -- especially in this day and age -- you have to be very careful."

More than a statement

Woolf noted that TJHS is a school that will not tolerate "any mean word or action or deed." In fact, this message is posted on a sign in the school's foyer.

But the father of the bullied junior high student, who says his son must always be on the lookout for the bullier, said the sign is a misrepresentation. In fact, he's told administrators the school should take the sign down.

"It's a tough issue," Woolf said of the school's efforts to curtail bullying.

Tough though it may be, schools must be doggedly persistent in trying to prevent bullying, and in stopping it once they know it's happening, Letendre said.

"I think it has to be a really important policy in the district," Letendre said. "... People just can't have it on a mission statement -- they really have to follow through because kids can't bully if adults don't let them."

And, Letendre, noted, the bullies, as well as their victims, need help.

"If we do not stop children from hurting others, they cannot stop themselves," Letendre said. "And they will go on to continue to hurt others until they are older and doing worse things and end up not doing well in life."

Bullying, and the prevention of bullying, is a tough issue for schools to handle and a bitter pill to swallow when it does occur.

Or, as Letendre said, "Nobody wants to admit that something like that is happening in their school district."

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