The Monday after the Moses Lake school shootings, Salk Middle School Principal Mary Haugen and Assistant Principal Les Johnson visited every class in their North Side school.
They were worried.
They had read that 14-year-old Barry Loukaitis, accused of killing two students and his teacher on Feb. 2 at Frontier Junior High School in Moses Lake, had been teased by one of his victims, that the murders possibly were the warped revenge of an adolescent underdog.
Like other educators nationally and in the Inland Northwest, they take bullying seriously. They call it harassment, assault.
A program at their school prevents a lot of the taunting, teasing and fighting. Students say it makes Salk safer.
In schools across the country, fighting a bully no longer is seen as a rite of passage - not in an era of waning parental supervision, easy access to guns and bloody video games such as “Mortal Kombat.”
The American Medical Association reports onethird of male teenagers say they have been slapped, hit or punched at school.
In Washington state, a student survey last year pinpointed eighth grade as the peak time for fighting. Nearly 40 percent of Washington sixth- and eighth-grade students reported having been involved in a physical fight during the past year.
Children’s problems become adults’ crises.
Bullies are five times more likely to get in trouble when they become adults, researchers say. They grow up to log more arrests for drunken driving, spousal abuse and child abuse. What’s worse, they are likely to sire a new generation of bullies.
If schools don’t take bullying seriously, victims feel desperation and hopelessness.
A 16-year-old girl at a rural Spokane County high school described her situation, asking for anonymity to protect herself from further intimidation.
“My locker is next to some of the kids I really don’t like,” the girl said. “They shove me out of the way. They scream in my face, ‘You’re a loser.’ You can’t ask for help. People ridicule you and put you down. I don’t think the adults really understand how bad it’s gotten.”
The girl waits in the parking lot each morning until the last possible moment before she enters school, dreading another day of insults.
Victims can sue.
In 1994, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed a restraining order protecting a 14-year-old boy from a bully who had teased him for having big ears by calling him “Dumbo.” School officials are told in national education journals that they may be legally liable for condoning harassment if they look the other way.
And there’s the small but worrisome chance that a bully’s victim will grab a gun.
“Almost invariably, the kids who bring weapons are not the heavy hitters,” Salk’s Johnson said. “They are the kids who feel frightened, threatened, intimidated. They don’t plan on shooting anyone. They think if they’ve got some heat, people will leave them alone.”
At Salk Middle School, Haugen and Johnson take some comfort knowing their school has a well-established program to nip bullies in the bud.
After the Moses Lake shootings, they wanted to make sure Salk students knew it, too, Haugen said.
“We asked them: ‘Who do we have here at Salk to talk with about harassment issues?’ “The students answered: ‘Mrs. Dreis.”’ Margo Dreis is a choir teacher with more than music on her mind. While working on her master’s degree three years ago, she came across an idea called peer mediation.
The research told her peer mediation gives students more responsibility for their behavior, promotes better relations among student cliques, improves staff morale and spreads conflict-resolution skills into students’ homes.
She wrote a thesis on it, received training and set up a program.
In 1993, Dreis trained seven students to be mediators. The students resolved 25 conflicts by guiding negotiations between the parties involved.
In the second year, 14 students mediated 79 problems - about one conflict every other school day. The problems ranged from disputes among friends over borrowed clothing to racial slurs between rivals.
This year, 56 students mediate Salk disputes. Students suspended for fighting must go to a peer mediation session together when they return to school, an idea proposed by one student mediator.
Johnson, the assistant principal, said solutions last longer because of mediation.
Students do the real work of getting their peers to listen to one another and agree on solutions.
The mediators give the program sterling endorsements.
“I don’t think (the shootings) would happen at our school,” said Missy Alake, 14. “There are too many people paying too much attention. There are too many people who care.”
Said 15-year-old Eric Eickstadt: “I think if more schools did this in the next five to 10 years, we probably won’t have these shootings.”
Student mediators come from a variety of student groups. They’re not all high-achievers.
“Last year, I was a troublemaker,” said Blake Anderson, a peer mediator. “I was never getting along with my teachers. When I got the letter last summer (inviting him to peer-mediation training), I said, ‘Why am I being picked for a peer mediator?”’ Anderson, 14, said he believes being a peer mediator changed him.
“I’ve straightened up since last year. I’ve done a total 180,” the boy said. “I have a lot more friends. I enjoy all my teachers and I think all my teachers enjoy me.”
Peer mediation works because young people feel more comfortable talking out their problems in front of someone else their own age, the teens said.
“They live in your times; they know what’s going on with society. Teachers don’t remember a lot of the pressure,” said Jillian Crisler, 14.
Bullying carries greater risks today, Haugen said. The reasons are numerous: gangs, availability of weapons, disrespect modeled by characters on television, lack of supervision at home.
“It can reach a point where it’s incessant,” Haugen said. “It starts at school and carries over to afterhours. The telephone is almost a weapon. So many youngsters have their very own telephones and their own private numbers. Kids will call one another all night long.”
And many students go home to empty houses, Haugen said.
“The kids go in groups from house to house. They write obscene things on garage doors and windows. They stand on the sidewalks and make threats.”
Against that backdrop, schools must take a firm stand, Haugen said.
“The obligation of administration and staff is to deliver the message that harassment of any kind is not acceptable in a school,” she said.
Salk students carry a copy of the district’s anti-harassment policy in their binders. Students know the formal and informal ways of dealing with harassment, Haugen said.
The school’s policy of no tolerance of fighting extends to students walking to and from school and riding school buses. Get in a fight and be suspended for at least one day. It’s the rule.
While some critics say peer mediation represents a trend toward schools dabbling in psychology, there appears to be strong public support for schools doing something.
In a recent national survey, 95 percent of teachers and 93 percent of the general public said it is appropriate for schools to teach students to solve problems without violence.
Salk’s peer mediation program costs $10,000 a year, Haugen estimated. It’s money well-spent, she said.
“We haven’t been giving children these skills,” Haugen said. “Fans throwing snowballs onto football fields and a high-school wrestler head-butting an official. … What’s happening to us?”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TIPS FOR SCHOOLS These ideas for schools come from the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.: Monitor playground activity closely with supervising adults visible at all times. Teach conflict resolution skills. Watch for symptoms of victimization such as withdrawal, declines in grades, unexplained anxiety. Report unprovoked beatings to police to send the message that the act is illegal.