Were you ever bullied? According to the Center for Disease Control bullying is a major public health problem for school-age children and adolescents.
The CDC estimates that nearly 30 percent of American adolescents have been bullied. Regrettably, it took a series of bullying-related suicides to finally bring attention to the issue. In 2010, the president convened a White House conference on bullying. The purpose of the conference was to dispel the myth that bullying is a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up.
Bullying is harmful. So much so that bully victims are two- to nine-times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims. Public sentiment appears to recognize this as well. Most states now have legislation related to bullying prevention. In 2010, Washington State passed a law mandating that each school district adopt policies and procedures that prohibit the harassment, intimidation or bullying of any student.
These laws were not in place during my own middle school years. Bullying was common then and included incidents including a boy whose head was forced into a toilet and another who was verbally harassed daily. In spite of new laws, things don't appear to have changed much. Our communities and schools continue to be permissive of bullying. As a result, approximately one out of every three children have been bullied, have bullied someone or both.
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Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. According to the Bellingham High School bullying policy, bullying can take many forms including slurs, jokes, innuendoes, demeaning comments, drawings, cartoons, pranks and gestures.
Bullying also includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally and purposely excluding someone from a group. Bullying is something that happens on a re-occurring basis or has the potential of becoming re-occurring.
Sadly, bullying behaviors inflict trauma on the brain and psyche of their victim. Kids who are bullied show higher rates of depression, anxiety, poor school attendance and grades, and a loss of interest in extra-curricular activities.
While anti-bullying laws are necessary, more community policing to enforce them needs to be developed. Students, parents and teachers should routinely intervene when they see incidents of bullying. They should report hazing rituals, social media trashing, and social cliques that intimidate their peers.
Prevention strategies recommend that adults should stop bullying behavior immediately when they see it. They should admonish excuses made by bullies such as "we are just having fun," "they deserve it" or "it is harmless." When intervening, adults should model calm behavior, separate the kids involved, make sure everyone is safe and find out what happened. Adults should also report incidents of bullying to the parents of the kids involved, teachers, principals and law enforcement as appropriate to the circumstances.
Students can help each other by being a good example, by being a good friend, by not being an audience to bullying, by helping the victim get away and by telling a trusted adult.
In addition to no-tolerance practices, studies now suggest that community education and awareness strategies are an effective method for changing the general culture climate and strengthening policy compliance. Efforts to prevent bullying are most effective when:
Adults understand the extent of the bullying problem and can distinguish bullying from other poor behavior;
Emphasis is placed on developing a positive climate and culture that does not support bullying and promotes caring and concern for others;
Programs are coordinated and aligned so that clear messages about bullying become part of daily routines supported by adults and youth;
There is buy-in from administrators, staff and youth, coupled with an understanding of the importance of bullying prevention at all levels.
Students can find skills and opportunities to address issues such as bullying and gangs by joining youth-driven social norming groups. The Natural High Club, Youth Suicide Task Force, the Youth Council, Choose Your Own Path, and the Gang Prevention Team are programs sponsored by the Whatcom Prevention Coalition. These programs tap into the passions of youth and normalize the positive attitudes and behaviors that are often overshadowed by bullying.
Adults may want to learn about the Compassionate Schools model developed at Western Washington University. By reading this curriculum you can easily imagine how an exceptionally productive culture could emerge in a school without bullying.
Start by reviewing your school's anti-bullying policy and discussing it with your children and other parents. Your ability to quickly identify bullying from other types of behavior will greatly improve how effective you are at preventing it.
TIPS FOR PARENTS
To help stop bullying:
Read and discuss your school's anti-bullying policy.
Learn the difference between bullying and other behavior.
Stop bullying when you see it.
Support a school culture that normalizes positive attitudes and peer support
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Whatcom Prevention Coalition, organizations building safe and healthy communities, http://whatcompreventioncoa.wix.com/whatcompreventioncoalition
Bellingham School District bullying policy, https://bellinghamschools.org/sites/default/files/policies/P3207.pdf
Washington state policy, http://apps.leg.wa.gov/RCW/default.aspx?cite=28A.300.285
http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org, 1-800-273-TALK FREE
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Byron Manering, executive director of the Brigid Collins Family Support Center in Bellingham.