District anti-bullying push on track, experts say

rheaton@beaufortgazette.comNovember 19, 2011 

  • Common signs a child is being bullied:

    * Damaged or missing clothing or other belongings

    * Lost items such as books, electronics, clothing or jewelry

    * Unexplained injuries

    * Headaches, stomach aches, trouble sleeping, frequent bad dreams

    * Changes in eating habits; hunger after school from skipping lunch

    * No interest in friends

    * Fears going to school or other peer activities

    * Poor school performance

    * Sadness, moodiness, anger, anxiety, depression

    * Talking about suicide



    Source: stopbullying.gov

  • Get breaking news, story updates and interesting reflections on Lowcountry schools by following Homeroom on Twitter.

The video of brutal fight in a Hilton Head High School locker room last month reduced some veteran educators to tears.

Recorded by four other students as the beating happened, the images showed a teen being punched and kicked while the amateur filmmakers cheered the attacker on.

As difficult as the scenes were to watch, there was one more thing that troubled the school officials who saw them: Those filming the victim did nothing to stop the pummeling.

In the investigation that followed, the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office deputy who serves as the school resource officer asked one of the young observers why he didn't stop it.

It wasn't his fight, the teen replied. The disagreement was between the two boys involved.

To eliminate that attitude of detachment, the Beaufort County School District has embarked on an ambitious campaign to change the climate of its schools.

The message is simple: If you see something, say something.

Intervene if you can without getting hurt.

Don't be a bystander.

Experts say that message is exactly what's needed to reduce bullying in schools.

"Generally what we have learned is that prevention efforts that target just the bullies and victims are rather ineffective," said Anne Williford, a professor at the School of Social Welfare at the University of Kansas. Williford has studied bullying and anti-bullying programs and was previously a school social worker.

"The programs that are the most successful are multi-layered. They target the whole school environment," she said.

TARGETING THE PROBLEM

Less than two weeks after the Oct. 14 fight at Hilton Head High School, students across the district got a quick injection of anti-bullying lessons, said Cynthia Hayes, the district's student services chief.

At many schools, students signed pledges vowing not to bully others and to help those they see being bullied.

They watched a video produced by Gov. Nikki Haley, who gave anti-bullying talks at many schools in the state that same month.

They read books.

Anti-bullying bulletin boards and posters went up.

Students and teachers talked about ways to help bullying victims and what bullying looks like.

The biggest push, Hayes said, was to encourage students and adults to report bullying.

Hayes outlined those efforts in a presentation at Tuesday's board of education meeting.

One statistic stood out: About 85 percent of students don't report bullying when they see it.

WHY NOT REPORT IT?

Bullying isn't reported for many reasons, said Julie Hertzog, director of the National Bullying Prevention Center. Her organization's recent online survey of teens found:

  • Children fear being the next target.

  • They worry about being seen as a tattle-tale.

  • They think that when they report bullying, nothing will be done.

  • Teens want to know a protocol exists and that they will be protected if they report bullying, Hertzog said.

    Hayes said the district's student handbook outlines clear disciplinary steps that will be taken, depending on the severity of the incident. Options include apologies, special training, interventions and disciplinary action up to and including expulsion.

    The boy who beat the Hilton Head High victim was suspended and charged with assault and battery in the third degree. The four boys who videotaped the fight were considered part of the problem and were also suspended.

    SETTING PRIORITIES

    When district officials met with high school student advisory councils, they found a different reason bullying isn't reported.

    "It's not my business," many students told Hayes.

    That response is called the "bystander effect."

    It's a well-known social psychological phenomenon, said Patricia Hawley, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas whose research focuses on aggression and social competence in children.

    People tend not to help victims in dire situations when others are present, experts say. The more people present, the less likely someone will help.

    But simply teaching children about that effect can increase their willingness to help, Hawley said.

    She and Williford are working to secure funding to implement a Finnish anti-bullying program that focuses on bystanders.

    "It gives them the skills and the efficacy to step up and do something," Hawley said.

    The program also teaches students specific strategies that stop rewarding bullying behavior and offers opportunities to practice the strategies they learn.

    The results in Finland have been encouraging.

    But convincing American schools to spend class time -- a valuable commodity in the age of standardized tests and achievement-driven education -- on anti-bullying efforts isn't always easy, Hawley said.

    Williford said studies have also shown that the more comprehensive and long-term anti-bullying programs are, the more likely they are to succeed. But that means losing class time from algebra or biology.

    Fortunately, Williford said, many schools are realizing such programs are just as important as learning about quadratic equations.

    "Schools have recognized that the social and emotional development of children is important," Williford said. "The more we support that, the more likely students will be engaged in academics and ready to learn because they are happy."

    ADDITIONAL MEASURES

    The county's district is planning additional measures.

    Hayes said there will be boxes in schools where students can anonymously report bullying.

    Peer mediation groups will be formed at some schools. District social workers and behavioral management staff have been trained with specific prevention techniques.

    Officials have also recognized that bullying isn't just a school problem, Hayes said.

    They've reached out to churches and faith leaders, asking them to be vigilant when youth are under their care. Bullying has been discussed with school improvement councils and the district plans more meetings with PTAs.

    In short, it's a full-court press.

    "Students need to be hearing it not only from the school, but also at church and with their parents," Hayes said. "We need to change the climate ... hopefully we will get to a point where our students are saying 'no' to bullying."

    Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.

    Related content: Fight at Hilton Head High spurs district-wide anti-bullying day; Oct. 20, 2011

    Girl, 11, assulted on school bus; Oct. 5, 2011

    Is your child a victim of cyberbullying; Nov. 6, 2010

    PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center

    Stopbullying.gov

    Beaufort County School District student code of conduct

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