Battling Bullies

Bullying goes digital in cyber age.
Alissa Widman Neese
Feb 2, 2014
To some, it’s a dangerous epidemic plaguing local schools.

To others, it’s just a “buzzword,” a trendy topic used to put parents in a frenzy.

No matter their stance, most people agree: Bullying is a hot-button topic among today’s educators.

To Jim Bisenius, a Columbus-based therapist who specializes in bullyproofing today’s youth, the issue is complicated and real.

It often embodies a complex combination of both perspectives, he said.    “Your biggest problem isn’t the dirty-faced kid beating up the person on the playground anymore,” Bisenius said. “It’s the ‘popular-looking’ kids. The social exclusion. The cyber bullying. If the kids don’t know how to shut it down, it hurts much more than someone punching them in the face”

Norwalk Schools recently recruited Bisenius for a proactive presentation at Main Street Intermediate School.

It’s one of many local schools boasting a proactive approach toward a bully-free environment.

“Any time you have this many kids in one place, there’s going to be conflict” principal Dan Bauman said. “This program gets students thinking about how to handle the situation and treat people with respect.”

The numbers
The Ohio Department of Education’s website defines bullying as “any intentional written, verbal, graphic or physical act that a student or group of students exhibits toward another particular student more than once”

The act must cause mental or physical harm and be “sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive, creating an intimidating, threatening or abusive educational environment”

The department recently modified the definition to also include electronic means of communication, such as cell phones or computers.

All Ohio schools are required to report bullying incidents involving student discipline to the Ohio Department of Education at the end of each school year.

When displayed on the department’s website, the information is lumped into a category called “harassment and intimidation,” which could also include some non-bullying issues. It’s the only public bullying data the state monitors and provides.

Of the 15 districts in the Register’s coverage area, only eight have data readily available.

The Register first addressed the lack of available bullying data in a 2011 story, when just two of the area’s 15 districts had data listed on the Ohio Department of Education’s website.

It’s unclear if the sparse information is due to a lack of reporting or a lack of incidents involving discipline.

Any school reporting fewer than 10 incidents to the state will have its data expunged from the system, to prevent individuals from identifying the student who was disciplined, Ohio Department of Education spokesman John Charlton said.

In the past three years, Fremont and Sandusky schools — by far the two largest districts in the Register’s coverage area — have reported the most bullying incidents to the department. The other six schools with visible data are Benton-Carroll-Salem, Clyde-Green Springs, Margaretta, Monroeville, Perkins and Vermilion schools.

Two area districts with pending bullying lawsuits against them — Bellevue Schools and Perkins Schools — did not list any data on the department’s website in the years the separate incidents occurred.

Parents filed the suits against the districts in 2012 and 2013, respectively, alleging their children were victims of racially charged bullying.

Parents voice concerns
When the Register polled district parents on Facebook about bullying issues, they cited virtually every area district. Some shared personal stories of their child’s run-ins at school, while others simply said they know it’s a problem.

The consensus: Regardless of data, bullying happens almost everywhere, but it’s unclear how to fix the problem.

Many parents also addressed technology, and how the Internet and social media are new tools bullies use to terrorize their victims.

Advice from Bisenius, no matter the bullying method: Arm students with the proper defensive means to shut down the bully.

Social exclusion? Establish one, solid friendship, not a large circle of acquaintances.

Cyber bullying? Seek the help of a technologically savvy person to block all contact.

Verbal confrontation? Learn dismissive body language.

Physical confrontation? Learn defensive techniques.

His No. 1 tip: Never respond to a bully’s provoking, as it often only makes matters worse.

“We need to empower kids to stop the bully on their own, because often bullies don’t operate when adults are around to see the problem,” Bisenius said. “Today’s kids can’t escape it, because of the Internet, but even online, there is almost always a way to stop it”

Schools seek solutions
Many districts in the Register’s coverage area said they’re taking a proactive approach to prevent bullying in their schools.

Clyde-Green Springs Schools implemented Rachel’s Challenge this school year, a nationally recognized student empowerment program striving to create a culture of compassion. The program is based on the writings and life of Rachel Scott, the first student killed in the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.

Sandusky Schools often hosts anti-bullying assemblies, as well as elementary school programs aiming to foster positive thinking, counselor Betty Maceo said.

The district also hosts professional development workshops to help staff members recognize potential problems, she said.

“It’s an ongoing process,” Maceo said. “There isn’t a one-shot booster shot that’s going to take care of it, so we need to constantly be on board”

All districts are required to have a state-approved anti-bullying policy in place, according to state law.

In an act of increased transparency, many districts statewide also list the number of reported bullying incidents in a given year on their websites — an act encouraged, but not required, by the Ohio Department of Education.

This offers insight when districts experience fewer than 10 disciplined bullying incidents, which the department, as previously stated, does not list online.

Locally, Bellevue, Benton-Carroll-Salem, Clyde-Green Springs Danbury, Huron, Monroeville, Norwalk and Sandusky schools list their bullying incidents on their websites, although the information is outdated for many districts. Edison, Fremont, Margaretta, Perkins, Port Clinton, Put-in-Bay and Vermilion schools do not list any information.

Toughen up?
As schools continue to implement public anti-bullying strategies, some individuals believe the actions are unnecessary.

On the Register’s Facebook, for example, some readers instructed today’s students to simply “toughen up,” and downplayed or dismissed the notion of bullying as a widespread social issue.

But to Maceo, that attitude ignores an adult’s role in ensuring students are kept safe.

Instead of dismissing the issue, adults should strive to instill an attitude of respect in students — for themselves, and for each other, she said.

“It’s a different day, and a different age, and sometimes things are easier said than done,” Maceo said. “You’re not walking in that child shoes. You don’t walk down these halls. Overlooking a problem and thinking, ‘that’s just what kids do,’ doesn’t help any situation. It will only hurt it.”

Friendly chatter
The Register asked its Facebook friends if they think bullying is a problem in local schools:

• Gina Woody — Yes it is a huge problem ... one that needs more addressing and more awareness brought to it.

• Carl Baum — Bullying has always existed, its part of growing up. Lately everyone has been so obsessed with it, like its some new trend. Kids and parents are just softer in today’s world of participation trophies and “everyone is a winner” mentalities.

• Kelsey Renee Newell — Bullying at every school is a problem and the sad part is that these kids go home and those same kids are stalking the victims on social media so they can terrorize them even when they can’t see them.

• Patrick Blasko — We will never get rid of bullying. We should teach kids how to stand up for themselves and cope instead of wearing pink shirts and passing anti-bullying laws.

• Jason Hippely — Bullying has gone on since the dawn of Man. No matter how hard we try, it never seems to go away. I wish that we could come up with a solution.

• Holly Radloff — When I was growing up I was picked on and bullied in junior high and grade school. I still remember names of the bullies and what they did to me.

 

Note: This story corrects a previous version, which incorrectly listed Clyde-Green Springs Schools as a district without bullying statistics available on its website.