Schools address bullying concerns

“My name is (name withheld). Meet me in the bathroom, and I will give you (oral sex).”

Someone assumed the identity of a female student and posted that kind of message on a social networking site. The girl’s mother, who asked to remain anonymous, said this is the kind of cyber bullying her daughter experienced while in middle school.

It is that behavior that is now addressed by the new harassment, intimidation and bullying law affecting school districts across the state. The law calls for a district-wide anti-bullying coordinator, a school anti-bullying specialist and a school safety team.

The girl, who is almost 14 and who now attends high school, discovered people were posting as her on Formspring. Her mother said posting on Formspring is anonymous, therefore a perfect place for cyber bullying. She notified the principal, who got involved and put a stop to it.

“A really strong component in all of this is the parents,” she said.

“If we need to investigate incidents outside of school because they potentially have impact in our schools, then I do believe the schools serve some role in that,” Mount Laurel Superintendent of Schools Antoinette Rath said. “We need to maintain a positive school climate in order to affect student learning, and if something outside of school upsets that school climate, then it does become a responsibility.”

The extent of school involvement is a different issue, though.

“Does the school have an obligation to look at things that happen outside of school? Yes we do,” she said.

“Mount Laurel has always taken student misconduct very seriously, and we will continue to do so,” Rath said, noting the district is now focusing on timelines of investigations and follow up to reduce incidents of HIB. She said she thinks the school’s mandate doesn’t end in the classroom.

Outside of school, officials believe that parents can play a role, too.

Irene Afek, coordinator of elementary programs and anti-bullying coordinator for Voorhees, said bullying should be addressed at home, as well as in school. She said there has been a statewide anti-bullying policy in place since 2002, which is not aimed at punishing bullies but teaching character education, providing an anti-bullying program and peer mediation. The law was adopted in response to the Columbine massacre in 1999.

“We really have supported a learning environment that’s really safe and caring for all of our students,” Afek said, noting Voorhees does not have a serious bullying situation.

She said, however, that bullying is a national problem, citing a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice report that said 32 percent of students aged 12 to 18 were bullied in the previous school year.

“We want to help both the targets feel safe, but we also want to assist the bullies in changing behaviors,” Afek said, adding she thinks the bullying problem is systemic in society. “Our students learn by example. People don’t need to love each other or even like each other, but they need to be civil to each other.”

The bullied girl’s mother said kids are connected 24/7 and can’t escape social networking, giving them no relief after school or during the summer.

“Parents need to be involved and understand what it is and what’s out there,” she said, noting searching the Internet for their child’s name is a start.

But the new initiative comes at a cost to school districts. Rath said the HIB law is an unfunded mandate from the state. Guidelines call for adding responsibility to existing staff members.

“If an employee is investigating one incident, they’re not doing something else,” Rath said. “We are required at this point in time to investigate all reported instances of harassment, intimidation or bullying, whether they rise to that level or not.”

She said the names of district coordinator and school specialists are on the district’s website.

Another concern is the potential for lawsuits against a school district. Attorney Kimberly Sukinik said she believes the law is well intended. She also said she does not think it opens the schools to be targeted by lawsuits by parents whose children are being bullied. However, she said, only time will tell.

So what’s the answer to bullying? And what role can schools play to resolve a situation?

Psychologist Jared Scherz, who practices in Mount Laurel, said there is no easy answer to a bullying problem.

“We tend to simplify it by looking at it in terms of either the media or scapegoat families that are impoverished or aggressive,” Scherz said. “We tend to label children as aggressive where I believe the problem is more systemic.”

He said school culture should be examined, the cohesion of faculty, infrastructure, how problems are resolved, how staff members feel about their work and the turnover rate with superintendents or principals.

Scherz said to look at what kind of environment is being created for the children. Do teachers join cliques and complain about others, or is there a two-way street when it comes to communication?

Also, he said superintendents and principals are under scrutiny to keep violent acts low in their districts and so can play the blame game.

“So what happens is, they help shift the focus onto the children,” Scherz said, noting it’s very difficult as a consultant to help them appreciate the systemic factors. “The healthier schools tend to be the ones that want consulting done because they’re the ones who tend to have a greater awareness of the collective influences that contribute to good organizational help. It’s like a family coming to a therapist to help them understand the nature of the interactions, the dynamics in the family.”

Scherz has created a website about constructive conflict resolution called UFeud.

“UFeud is going to be the world’s first social networking site that really has a purpose to it,” he said, noting it is a place for students to seriously debate.

Bernadette Shea, of Better Me Books in Voorhees, also believes bullying issues may start from home.

“Home life is a child’s first microcosm of society, school is their second, and therefore it is vitally important to address bullying at this young age,” she said. “These are their formative and vulnerable years, a critical time when a child is impressionable, eager and willing to be part of a group.”

Shea said she has an anti-bullying program has been very successful.

“All of our programs deal specifically with visual interaction between the children, a puppet, the counselor/teacher/facilitator and our curriculum,” she said. “The young students quickly identify with the character and are consequently open to learn. Every one of our programs deal with self-esteem, which often is lacking, in both the bully and the bullied.”

She also said parents and teachers should first acknowledge bullying.

“It is important that they validate the feelings of the individuals,” Shea said, noting it is important for adults to address the situation immediately because waiting only reinforces the fear and loneliness of the victim as well as confirms the feeling of power within the bully.

“The bullying policies of each school, whatever they may be, should be carried out quickly,” she said. “Since it doesn’t take children very long to see if there are, or are not, serious consequences to their actions.”