Battling bullies: What local schools do -- and don't

SANDUSKY Three Willard wrestlers bullied a younger member of the team by grabbing his genitals throu
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010

 

SANDUSKY

Three Willard wrestlers bullied a younger member of the team by grabbing his genitals through the clothes, poking fingers into his rectum through his shorts and sitting on him naked while another student took a photograph.

The wrestlers were kicked off the team, suspended from school and convicted of disorderly conduct.

Huron County assistant prosecutor Dina Shenker said the wrestlers' actions were hurtful and humiliating.

While Shenker's descriptions are common to incidents involving bullying, the aforementioned punishments are not.

School safety advocates say too many bullies get away with teasing, taunting and acts of aggression.

Part of the problem is students are reluctant to report the events. This includes not only the students being bullied, but their peers.

The problem

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, bullying is defined by the power imbalance between the bully and his or her victim. Bullying can take many forms, including teasing, name-calling, threats and intimidation.

Norwalk Schools had three cases of bullying and harassment in the 2004-05 school year, seven in 2005-06 school year, four in both the 2006-07 and 2007-08 school years, and five in the 2008-09 school year.

Sandusky Schools had six cases last year.

Other school districts -- Perkins, Huron, Monroeville and Willard school districts -- did not fulfill information requests by late Friday afternoon.

Bellevue Schools said they did not have the information readily available.

All school districts in Ohio are required to have anti-bullying policies, and it appears all districts in this area have fairly comprehensive plans.

But advocates say those plans only work if school administrators are aware of bullying. They often aren't.

Advocates say bullies generally want an audience, because the activity is an exercise in power and humiliation. They want others to see their exploitation of the power imbalance.

But bullies know better than to harass and taunt other students in front of adults. They wait until they are out of adults' reach before misbehaving, said Sarah Wallis, director of education programs with the Ohio Commission on Dispute Resolution and Conflict Management.

The encounters can take place almost anywhere, from the lunch line to the playground, school bus, bus stop, gymnasium or restrooms. Other students are almost always around to witness them.

"If you think about it, the kids who have the bullying behavior and the kids who are the targets, they are the minority in the school -- the bystanders are most everyone else," Wallis said.

Experts say the problem is there's a "code of silence" at schools nationwide -- a tendency for students to not report bullying out of fear of being labeled a snitch or attracting unwanted attention.

According to national research, although bystanders witness about 85 percent of bullying episodes, only a small fraction of them report the behavior to officials.

Too often, bystanders do nothing to discourage bullying behavior, meaning they essentially serve as the audience for the bully.

The responsibility of bystanders

In a 2001 interview with Time magazine, psychologist Peter Fonagy said bystanders cannot be passive agents.

"The whole drama is supported by the bystander," Fonagy said. "The theater can't take place if there's no audience."

Kimberly Kowalski, spokeswoman for the Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, said bullies don't need applause and cheers from bystanders to be emboldened -- silence can be just as reinforcing.

"(B)ystanders can be part of the solution by standing up to bullying or harassing behavior. Often silence is interpreted as condoning the behavior," Kowalski said. "Speaking up can be a very powerful tool. Don't hesitate to speak out against bullying."

Much like at rock concerts or live comedy shows, where the crowd can boo an artist off the stage, bystanders who vocalize disapproval of a bully's performance can affect the bully's actions.

Wallis calls this "enlisting bystanders," which is one of the most effective methods of curtailing the problem.

To do this, Wallis said, schools should have a way for bystanders to report bullying anonymously, so they don't have to worry about the consequences of breaking the code of silence.

But it also takes creating a school culture where students understand the painful consequences of bullying and know how to spot it.

One of the biggest misconceptions about bullying is that it's the inevitable result of kids being kids, and is a simple fact of life, advocates said.

But bullying makes life miserable for many students and causes other problems.

"Their grades drop, they socially withdraw, they are afraid of going to school," Wallis said.

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found as many as 160,000 students stay home from school each day to avoid being bullied.

If students know the facts, they are more likely to understand why it is important to intervene.

Wallis said officials should also make sure students know who to go to when they want to report bullying and what steps officials take from there.

Katherine Cowan, marketing and communications director with the National Association of School Psychologists, said bullied students should not have to suffer in silence, and their peers have a responsibility to help them find their voice.

"I think there are many kids who are bullied who don't tell anyone they are getting bullied," Cowan said. "But as importantly, there's a lot of kids who see bullying going on and don't say something directly to the bullies themselves or go to an adult and tell them that, 'Hey, this bully is really picking on Sam.'"

Students who witness bullying and doing nothing about it makes them enablers, experts said, and it's time to break the silence.

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