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Emotion Revolution: Why bullying hurts

Schools, students draw new battle lines against bullying

UPDATED: Sun., Aug. 23, 2015

Though there has been an increasing number of programs to stomp out bullying, children (and some adults) are still experiencing physical, mental and emotional damage from current or past bullying.  (Maxximmm Maxximmm / Istockphoto)
Though there has been an increasing number of programs to stomp out bullying, children (and some adults) are still experiencing physical, mental and emotional damage from current or past bullying. (Maxximmm Maxximmm / Istockphoto)

A young boy seeks out a new friend and gets punched in the face. A high-school girl is subjected to catcalls over her weight. Kids of all ages take shelter in the perceived safety of their homes only to find themselves targeted by online trolls.

These are all acts of bullying.

Bullying has been around since the first instance one human decided to exert dominance over another. Bullying involves the strong preying on the weak; it can be seen in the actions of any group physically abusing, harassing or shunning those it views as different.

It can happen at virtually any age, but bullying is most closely associated with middle- and high-school years.

In fact, as defined by the federal web site stopbullying.gov, bullying is any “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.” It can include “actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.”

Bill Rutherford, principal of Coeur d’Alene’s Fernan Elementary, writes about bullying in a column for the Coeur d’Alene Press. He stresses that a true definition of bullying involves repeated and ongoing action which, he says, differentiates actual bullying from someone simply being mean.

Whatever its form, the end result of bullying is the same: ostracism and pain, either physical or emotional, often both at once.

No respite from bullying.

Thanks to social media forums such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, 21st century bullying follows a form unimaginable in generations past. Contemporary forms of bullying are notably abhorrent mainly because of how pervasive the intimidation can be.

“Today there’s no break from people who would bully,” says Sevan Bussell, youth program director for the nonprofit advocacy/education organization Odyssey Youth Movement. “There is no pause button. There is no ‘Well, I had a nice respite weekend away from people who dislike me or who want to bother me.’ It comes at them, day, night, weekend.”

Since 1992, Odyssey Youth Movement has focused on advocacy and education programs on behalf of gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender-questioning youth. It offers both a Spokane-based drop-in center and educational outreach to area school districts regarding LGBTQ youth.

But just as there is no simple solution to the problem of bullying, there are no single targets for bullies. Anyone who is seen both as weak and/or different – by race or ethnicity, by stature, by gender or sexual orientation, by socioeconomic status – can become a victim.

The question is, what to do to stop such harassment. In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to the problem. On April 21, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed the Bully Free Montana Act, making his state the last to pass an anti-bullying law.

School systems step in

Washington expanded its existing school anti-harassment law in 2010, requiring every public school to develop an anti-bullying policy. In contrast, as late as April 6 of this year Idaho Gov. Butch Otter was signing a bill aimed at strengthening his state’s existing anti-bullying law.

According to statistics provided by the Idaho State Department of Education, the state’s updated anti-bullying legislation was long overdue:

• 1 in 10: the number of Idaho students who have either transferred or dropped out of school because of bullying;

• 1 in 7: the number of Idaho students who have “seriously considered” suicide;

• 1 in 14: the number of Idaho students who have attempted suicide.

Spurred on by legal requirements, school districts throughout the Northwest have searched for effective ways to combat the problem. Sometimes the options have involved seeking

outside help from such groups as Odyssey Youth Movement; that group’s Safer Schools program, Bussell says, provides “training and education about best practices with teachers, counselors and administrators … and making sure that students feel comfortable going and being honest about what they’re experiencing.”

In other cases, alliances have formed between organizations, parents and students.

Fernan Elementary Principal Rutherford is the Coeur d’Alene School District’s facilitator for its Stand Up, Speak Up anti-bullying campaign. Rutherford emphasizes the need to be positive, to teach empathy and kindness to those who bully so they know what such harassment feels like.

And, he stresses, the most effective teaching has to come from the students themselves

“Adults won’t always be around,” Rutherford says, “so students have to take the lead.”

Students combat bullying by establishing school-wide standards.

Such group/parent/student alliances can result in what Plummer-Worley (Idaho) School Superintendent Judi Sharrett calls “home-grown” solutions.

Even before Idaho required such action, the Plummer-Worley School District – located 45 miles southeast of Spokane in a town with a population of 1,017 – acted. The school district, which comprises Lakeside Elementary and Lakeside Jr./Sr. High School, teamed up in 2009 both with the larger community and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe to establish its own bullying/harassment protocol.

“We just felt it was incredibly important to emphasize this issue,” says Sharrett. “And what we realized is that … if we didn’t work together in a community this size, we weren’t going to get anywhere.

The district took direction from the Portland office of Equity Assistance, the U.S. Department of Education-funded group that, according to its web site, partners with “K-12 public schools and their communities (to) incorporate educational equity into policies, procedures and classroom practices to ensure that all students receive what they need to succeed academically.”

Sharrett avoided teaming with other notable programs, such as Rachel’s Challenge – an organization that formed after the 1999 Columbine school shootings – because of the expense.

“We’re a small school district,” she says.

But a partnership with Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s Stop Violence Program turned out to be a workable alternative.

As Stop Violence program director Bernie LaSarte says, “We needed to bring everybody together, whether students were playing basketball down at the (Tribal) Wellness Center, whether they were here in Plummer-Worley or in De Smet. We needed to say, ‘Let’s define this, let’s make a plan, and let’s put it to work.’ ”

All agreed on the importance of incorporating students into the process as leaders.

“It’s really easy for us to come in and have assemblies, even if we did it every month, and talk about bullying,” says Plummer-Worley school counselor Stefani Hoffman. “But I don’t think they listen as much when it’s coming from the adults as they do when it’s coming from other students.”

Some 30 students attended a daylong Equity Assistance workshop at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year. Through that workshop, Hoffman says, “we found those leaders, and they’re the ones who continued through the process.”

Action steps included making posters, holding a “Bully Awareness Day,” conducting a school-wide survey on bullying, holding periodic assemblies and installing special boxes designed specifically to hold anonymous bullying reports.

It gets better.

And what has been the result?

Sativa Bohlman, 15, is one of five Plummer-Worley students who co-authored a guest opinion piece regarding their school’s anti-bullying campaign that ran in the Coeur d’Alene Press.

She says she and the other students “looked at things that happened in our school and put them in a student’s perspective to help understand what was going on.”

Bohlman’s own perspective about bullying comes first hand. She says she left Lakeside Elementary in 6th grade and transferred to Tekoa because of bullying.

She will enter Lakeside High as a sophomore in the fall. While she still sees some bullying go on, she’s tried to work on what she can: handling her own emotions.

“I just kind of push it off and don’t let them define me,” she says, “not let them tell me who I am when I know I’m not.”

Self-regard and empathy can help some combat the worst effects of bullying. But it’s not likely to stop it completely. Says Bohlman, “I think there will be less bullying. But I don’t think it will all change.”

Superintendent Sharrett emphasizes that the process is ongoing and that it’s difficult to offer “concrete examples” of what the district’s anti-bullying campaign has achieved. But LaSarte says she’s received far fewer parental complaints about bullying.

And Hoffman adds that while she had 11 reports the first semester, “We had only two or three the second semester, and I’d like to think at least part of that was because of our continued work.”

“We don’t know how this is going to work out,” Sharrett says. But, she adds, “At least students are now talking about it.”

If nothing else, an open discussion about bullying is a good place to start.

Inland Northwest students seek bullying solutions

Christian Koenig

“My name is Christian Koenig. I am 17. I go to Lewis and Clark High School, and I also go to On Track Academy. On Track is a place for people to catch up in school and to get a little extra help and stuff. Next year I’ll be a senior.

The first day of kindergarten, I was trying to make new friends. I was so scared. And I walked up to this kid and was like, ‘Hey, you want to be friends, you want to hang out?’ And he just punched me in the face for talking to him.

That kid followed me around, all the way from the first day of school until we graduated and started going to high school. He was bullying me that whole time, every day.

It gave me quite a bit of depression, which built up over time with other stuff that also gave me depression.

I haven’t seen him since I moved and started going to Lewis and Clark.

I’m still being bullied by strangers and stuff. Like, the other day I was walking down the street and this guy followed me and my friend for like a block and was like calling us names like faggot and making fun of her body weight and stuff. And it wasn’t cool.

Yeah, I’m gay. My mom was so happy when I came out. She was like, ‘Right, your uncle owes me $100!’ And I was like, ‘All right, mom, you go get that money. You better buy me something cool.’

Odyssey is definitely a really supportive place. All the volunteers and workers here will sit down with you and talk about your day and what’s going on and your problems and trying to help you figure things out. They can be just as supportive as possible and help you figure out solutions to why these people are bullying you and ways you can stay away from them and just be as safe as possible.

I don’t really have the privilege of having any Internet at home. But I do when I come here. Occasionally, you do run into some negative nellies, but I kind of just scroll on and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to pay any attention to this. This is a happy time.’ Other people I hear stories about bullying and hacking and things being posted on other sites about you.

Times get hard but all you can do is keep moving forward and don’t look back. Life is like a bow and arrow. You get pulled back and then you get launched forward into good stuff.”

Sativa Bohlman

“I am 15. I’m gonna be a sophomore this coming up year.

I like math, I like agriculture, I like science – some science, depends on what the science is about.

In 6th grade, I was bullied really bad, where I left Lakeside (the junior/senior high school that serves the Plummer-Worley School District) and went to a different school. I went to Tekoa for 7th grade.

I had a silly relationship. I dated this guy and he broke up with me. And then all the girls would like pick on me and call me names. Then the boys started to do it, and then the whole class would do it. Whenever I was in class, they would call me names.

I think they do it because maybe they have a hard time at home and they take their anger out on other kids. I think you can let the bully know that someone’s going to be there for them. They’re not going to discipline them, really, but just be there for them and help them understand what they’re going through so they can stop being a bully.”


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