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One State Takes Action
In the year 2013 alone, the state of Indiana had a total of 9,396 bullying incidents reported in the public school system. The state, which ranks third in bullying incidents on school grounds (according to the Centers for Disease Control), has a serious problem with school bullies. Statistics show that 1 in 4 children in Indiana are bullied in some fashion, with 20% of those students skipping school due to fear of confrontation by bullies.
While only 21% of reported bullying incidents in Indiana were physical and 44% were verbal, Indiana took the problem seriously enough to pass a law that year requiring schools to record bullying incidents. That law interprets bullying as the creation of a hostile school environment in which repeated unwanted acts or gestures place students in fear of harm or affect their school performance or mental health. Steps have also been taken to facilitate peer-to-peer conflict mediation and to train teachers in anti-bullying techniques. Incidents are reported to school administration, to state authorities, and to parents.
In the last few years, two tragic cases of school bullying have struck a chord with parents everywhere.
Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover
On April 6, 2009, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover was found hanging by an extension cord by his mother in their Springfield Massachusetts home. After weeks of being tormented by classmates, with no substantive action from school administrators, the 11-year-old 6th grader took an unthinkable step to escape the torture. Carl’s mother, Sirdeaner Walker, had reported the threats and bullying to school authorities, but the cruelty toward her son persisted.
A bright student who was active in athletics, Carl apparently became a target for other children at the school who called him “gay” and said he acted like a girl. Though his mother tried to resolve the matter through the proper channels, the appropriate actions were not forthcoming and the harassment continued. In desperation over the relentless torment, Carl ended his own life to avoid his persecutors. There was an outcry and some anti-bullying measures were put into place, but no one was held accountable, and it wouldn’t be enough to stop the bullies in another nearby town.
Like Carl Walker-Hoover, Phoebe Prince, a young girl from Ireland who had moved to the U.S. and was attending South Hadley High School in South Hadley, Massachusetts, had been enduring harassment and bullying from her classmates. The 15-year-old had dated a couple of older boys from her school who began to harass her, enlisting other students to join in the persecution of the young girl. At school she was hounded, as her tormentors carried on a campaign of verbal intimidation combined with threats of physical assault. In January of 2010, young Phoebe cracked under the pressure of her classmates’ cruelty and hanged herself.
The boys who had harassed Phoebe, together with other students who had participated in the persecution, were held accountable and appeared in court to answer charges ranging from felony criminal actions to misdemeanors. Most of the defendants were given probation and community service. But this incident, coming so soon on the heels of the Walker-Hoover event, helped to draw attention to the serious problem of bullying and harassment present in the schools of Massachusetts. Legislators were motivated to propose anti-bullying measures and schools and parents were put on notice that bullies would be held accountable for their actions.
Since the inception of My Space, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, bullies have found a new outlet for their sadistic tendencies, the Internet. The advantage of the Internet for these tormentors is that they have a wider audience. Bullies can now spread their venom with the rapid-fire speed of a few keystrokes. The object of torment really has little choice but to bear the brunt of the cruel taunts and insults or leave the Internet in humiliation. For some, it is too much to bear, and instances of suicide brought on by the vicious ridicule and derision of Internet trolls have been reported. There have even been instances of parents of children who committed suicide being taunted by cyberbullies. There seems to be no limit to the lengths to which these predators will go to hunt down their prey.
What Can You Do?
In the face of this onslaught of physical, mental, and cyber harassment, what can parents do to prevent their children from becoming the victims of those whose lack the conscience to prevent them from tormenting others to the point of suicide? One way is to help your child feel free to confide in you and to recognize bullying, either when they are approached to participate in it, or when they become the object. Reporting this harassment in its early stages is important, before a child feels that they are pushed to the limit and there is no way out for them. An open line of communication between parent and child is the only way to help a child feel he or she has options and that they don’t have to endure this by themselves.
When children feel the pull of peer pressure and are tempted to participate in bullying, parents must let them know in no uncertain terms that this is unacceptable behavior and they must stand up and refuse to be a part of it. If your child does participate in bullying, do not cover for them or make excuses. Don’t try to lay the blame on someone else, or worse, on the victim. Accept that you will have to work with your child and with the school and the parents of the bullied child to resolve the matter, If necessary, seek family therapy; and if some of the blame reverts to you, accept it and try to remedy the problem, then move on. Don’t go into denial. That won’t help your child or the situation. But be supportive of your child; he or she may need your help in breaking the bad habits that have led to this point. Don’t condemn.
Above all, try to understand that this is not a judgment on you as a parent. All parents try to do the best they can under varying circumstances. The only choice is to try to redirect our children’s anger and impulses in a more positive direction so that more young people do not fall prey to this terrible cycle.
For many years, state and federal educational organizations and our own firm have been frustrated by the fact that some schools have under reported or inaccurately reported crimes and offenses. Long before NCLB was made law, data collection from schools was always problematic. In our 16 years as an education safety firm, we have found that there are four critical problems that contribute to this problem.
1. SOFTWARE ISSUES:
Current software for incident reporting is flawed. Most reporting software used by schools does not allow for the proper classification of an incident. For example: Two students have a fight. In the first few seconds of the physical confrontation, one student strikes the other in the face with their fist. Towards the end of the fight, the other student picks up a weapon and strikes back with it. With most programs, the school can only classify the event with one description, so school officials usually choose to categorize this type of incident by the lesser of two evils, a fistfight not a fight involving a weapon.
2. LACK OF KNOWLEDGE:
When administrators and school staff are questioned about the laws in their respective states regarding child welfare and violence only a small number can accurately explain specific offenses for specific acts. For example, when our staff asks principals and educators about the age of consent law in New York State most of the time we receive three answers 16, 17 or 18. A lack of understanding of the law by school officials is adding to this problem.
In addition, many schools do not know about their specific problems. They report what they see not what is actually happening. This lack of knowing ALL of the issues comes from a lack of assessment, training and planning. All schools must have a thorough assessment of security issues within the context of management structure. How well is the building managed, how well are the students managed, how well are vendors managed, how well are visitors managed and how well are staff members managed? These are the questions that need to be answered to truly understand the extent of the problems within a school or district.
3. ETHICAL SLOP:
Because of current state / federal laws and public pressure, there is no motive to be honest as an administrator or school board member about the negative / criminal issues in your district. For example if the district down the road is fudging the numbers and you accurately report yours, as a district you will look mismanaged and they will look well managed.
By being honest about the incidences in your schools, you bring the wrath of state and federal agencies upon yourself or more importantly the parents in your community. An uneven playing field creates opportunity to cheat.
Dr. Steven Levitt has researched this phenomenon in schools and wrote about it in Chapter 1 of his book “Freakonomics” 2005 [New York Times bestseller] In the current state of affairs, the personal ethics of the administrators and board members is the only thing that protects the district or school from lying about their numbers.
4. LACK OF SOLUTIONS:
Currently few programs have effectively prevented school related violence or negative behavior by students. Primarily because they do not address the underlying issues of negative parental behavior, truancy, negative cliques, female aggression, negative behavior of staff, policies failures and inconsistent enforcement of the rules by staff. Hiding the “real story” in a district becomes part of the survival process of individuals and their careers.