Schools combat bullying through awareness, prevention programs [ UT, by Karen Kucher, 7/5/2012 ]

Students at Hilltop High School earlier watched a bullying documentary base on a true story and then followed up with a classroom discussion. Students in Louise Fericelli classroom listened as students offered their observations of bullying on and off campus.
Students at Hilltop High School earlier watched a bullying documentary base on a true story and then followed up with a classroom discussion. Students in Louise Fericelli classroom listened as students offered their observations of bullying on and off campus. — Nelvin C. Cepeda

“All the time.”

That’s how often a 10th-grader at Hilltop High School said she was being tormented by a classmate during PE.

How she reported it was discrete but direct: She dropped a note into a “bully box,” one of two metal lock boxes on campus that are a physical symbol of the school’s broad effort to combat bullying among students.

With the acclaimed documentary “Bully” in theaters and a new anti-bullying state law poised to take effect, the persistent problem of bullying in school remains at center stage these days.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than one in four students in middle and high schools reported being bullied at school in 2009 and 6 percent reported being cyberbullied, the latest statistics available. In a survey of San Diego County students in 2009, 32 percent said they had been made fun of because of their looks or the way they talk while 23 percent of eleventh graders said they had been targeted by cyberbullies.

“It is more people seeing it for what it is,” said Mara Madrigal-Weiss, a project specialist with the county Office of Education who works on bullying prevention and intervention. “There is concern about what can happen.”

Starting in July, schools in California must have anti-harassment policies in place that ensure that all reports of bullying, including those involving harassment based on perceived or actual sexual orientation, are taken seriously and addressed quickly. Dubbed Seth’s Law, the legislation was in response to the suicide of a gay 13-year-old in Tehachapi who was bullied at school.

Another new state law made posting harassing, threatening or bullying messages on social network sites an act that can result in suspension or expulsion.

Bullying in schools can take many forms – from name calling and taunting to acts of physical violence to cyberbullying, where the tormentor uses texts or social media sites to target a victim. School administrators say cyberbullying presents its own challenges because it often happens off-campus and gives bullies a way to cause far more harm than just tormenting a classmate during recess.

Madrigal-Weiss described the difference this way: “Five people see me shamed on the playground. My entire class sees me shamed online.”

Many local schools are expanding their bullying-prevention efforts. The San Diego Unified School District in 2011 beefed up its anti-bullying policy to extend protections to transgender students who might be targeted.

“We took a look at an issue that needed addressing and started implementing the changes long before the law took effect, based on incidents that were happening,” said district spokeswoman Linda Zintz.

So far this year, the district has suspended 117 students for bullying, about 1.4 percent of all suspensions. This is a new category on the district’s record-keeping on suspensions so prior year comparisons aren’t available, Zintz said.

At Allen Elementary in the Chula Vista Elementary School District, students start each day promising to be “bully busters,” reciting a pledge to treat others with kindness and respect and promising to tell an adult if they notice someone being bullied. The pledge ends, “Being a buddy begins with me.”

Principal Toni Faddis said students are reminded about good citizenship and character traits frequently at the K-6 school She uses student surveys to identify problem areas and respond. This year, she said she put additional supervisors on the playground and has staff systematically check on restrooms after seeing survey results.

She said incidents of bullying have decreased in the five years she’s been at the school.

Faddis and others say parents sometimes confuse bullying with other types of inappropriate behavior, such as when a child is pushed down on the playground by a classmate. To fall into the category of bullying, educators say the action needs to be repeated, intentional and involve a social or physical power imbalance between the bully and the victim.

Even young children can be victimized by bullying. Girls, in particular, tend to engage in rumor spreading, gossip and exclusion to target other students, teachers and anti-bullying experts say.

At one local school, a second grader endured bullying daily during lunch when she went to find a seat. She would go to sit at a table and classmates would tell her to keep going, that there wasn’t a place at the table for her, recalled Madrigal-Weiss, who was conducting anti-bullying training at the school.

“She was pushed out from the social circle and isolated in a way that was causing suffering for her,” said Madrigal-Weiss. A teacher ended up talking to the girls in the class about how hurtful their actions were.

Hilltop teachers say a long-running mentoring program that pairs freshmen with upperclassmen is helping to identify bullying at its earliest stages. The school created a bullying prevention committee this year that pulls together 29 teachers, administrators, staff and students for monthly meetings focused on the issue.

Many classrooms sport small signs declaring Hilltop is a “safe zone” where hurtful words are not acceptable. Because of its ongoing anti-bullying efforts, the campus soon will be designated a “No Place for Hate” school by the Anti-Defamation League.

“I feel there is a national bullying awareness movement,” said Elizabeth Hernandez, an English teacher who heads the school’s anti-bullying committee.

School leaders try to find way to reinforce the message. Last month, many students watched a film titled “Bullied” about a gay student’s legal battle against a Wisconsin school district in 1996 and teachers led classroom discussions on the topic.

Madrigal-Weiss said anti-bullying efforts need to go beyond the one-day assembly and become a message carried throughout the school with staff, parents and students receiving training and rules and policies being enforced to be effective. Students need to feel safe and respected and know they can go to teachers if there’s a problem.

“It can’t just be posters. It can’t just be a school newsletter,” said Madrigal-Weiss. “Bring it up. If we want our children to learn math, we spend time talking about math. We should focus some class time on bullying prevention.”

Hilltop teacher Louise Fericelli, who supervises the Connect Crew program, said having older students intervene with peers allows the school to address problems in the early stages. “The first time the Connect Crew hears about a ninth-grader being bullied by a 10th-grader we will have a senior go talk to the 10th-grader in a calm, reasonable way and the 10th-grader will stop,” she said.

Hilltop also has dealt with cyberbullying involving students creating Facebook pages with false names with the goal of tormenting specific students.

“We had a case last year where a number of senior girls were targeted and people were writing hateful things about a group of girls who were quite popular,” Fericelli said. “… That kind of thing spreads like wildfire and it can be difficult to find the culprit and to stop the damage.”

Students sometimes are in tears at school over things written about them on the Internet, said Hilltop senior Elizabeth Eisermann, in her second year in the Connect Crew. “When people take it to Facebook, it really does affect them,” she said.

Fericelli said administrators talked to the teen who was suspected of creating the page and teachers spread the word to students that it was “not cool” to look at the site.

“It took a week or two but eventually we were able to at least get people to move on to something else.”

As for the sophomore who filed a complain in the bully box, the situation resolved itself. The girl told a counselor she had talked it out with the bully. “You know how that happens sometimes, as time goes by you decide, ‘I’m going to actually talk to that person’ and it all comes out OK.” Hernandez said.