School district continues battle against bullying, says it needs help

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comMay 11, 2014 

The apparent suicide of a Robert Smalls Middle School sixth-grader has devastated the community.

Although 12-year-old Celeste Wills no longer has a voice, her death has evoked boisterous pleas and loud demands for schools to do more to combat bullying and raise awareness about depression.

Wills wrote about her problems and her growing depression in an online blog before dying April 30 of what authorities say was probably a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Her parents, Clarissa and Dale Wills, say they don't blame the school or the district for their daughter's death, since even they were unaware of Celeste's struggles until after her death.

The Beaufort County School District has myriad programs to combat bullying and raise awareness about a problem that plagues schools nationwide.

Nonetheless, many community members and some schools officials, such as Board of Education Chairman Bill Evans, wonder what might have been done differently.

"I know that we do a lot of things that other school districts don't do, like the different ways to report bullying, the traveling show (play) about bullying, and I know our staff has put a lot of emphasis on it in the last few years," Evans said. "But I am always thinking, what more can we do?"

'PROGRESSIVE AND PROACTIVE'

The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office continues to investigate Celeste's death.

Both Sheriff P.J. Tanner and spokeswoman Sgt. Robin McIntosh say they won't comment on details or speculate on what might have prompted Celeste's suicide until that investigation is complete.

The school district is assisting the Sheriff's Office, district spokesman Jim Foster said. Robert Smalls held a vigil May 1 that acknowledged neither bullying, nor suicide. Foster said the district will not know what role, if any, bullying played until the investigation concludes.

But Celeste's parents and friends say they believe she was bullied and struggled with depression.

Evans' question -- what more can the schools do? -- rings in the ears of chief student resources officer Gregory McCord, too. He said there's no easy answer.

During the past decade -- particularly since 2011, when a brutal fight was filmed in a Hilton Head Island High School locker room -- the school district has updated its anti-bullying and bullying-awareness programs:

  • It offers a phone number and email allowing people to anonymously report bullying.
  • Two years ago, the drama club at Beaufort High School created a play about bullying called "When You See Something, Say Something" that tours the district and has been conducted at regional Rotary Club events.
  • Posters are on many school walls, telling students what bullying is and how to address it.
  • The district has installed cameras on the buses after a parent said her son was continually bullied on the rides to and from school.
  • All teachers and staff are trained to look for signs of bullied and depressed students. Many district schools augment the training with their own strategies to prevent bullying.
According to the district's website, Beaufort Elementary School students are required to read the book, "The Energy Bus for Kids," a story about staying positive and overcoming challenges. Bluffton High School shares anti-bullying presentations with students. Hilton Head Island Middle School offers tips on how to handle bullying in the morning announcements.

However, the reason kids are bullied and way they are bullied seem to be ever-changing, making the battle to eliminate it imprecise and never-ending, McCord said.

"Bullying has evolved from playground bullying to a world of cyberbullying," he said. "But the district is trying to stay progressive and proactive in how it addresses bullying."

IS IT EFFECTIVE?

McCord is confident the district's efforts have been helpful. He says school administrators as well as the district are receiving more information and reports from students and parents about incidents of bullying.

He is not sure if the increase in reports means bullying is on the rise or simply that more people are reporting it. Whichever is the case, McCord said the rise is positive in at least one respect: When students and educators are aware of bullying problems, they can be addressed.

But Evans said it's difficult to know how much the programs curb bullying.

"I know we are doing a lot of things, but I don't know how effective they are being," he said. "It's a hard thing to get your hands around because so much of it depends on people being willing to come to talk to you."

Indeed, a study published in the Journal of Criminology in September suggests awareness and prevention do not always go hand in hand. It found that students at schools with anti-bullying programs are actually more likely to be bullying victims than students who attend schools without such programs.

The research from the University of Texas, Arlington, said the programs might simply be showing students what bullies look like and teaching bullies how to hide their behaviors.

So to be successful, school programs must also involve parents and the community, according to Richard Lieberman, a school psychologist and a crisis intervention expert with the National Association of School Psychologists. It also helps to address bullying and depression in small groups, so students don't feel isolated and are more likely to speak up.

'KEEP WORKING ON IT'

McCord said he often hears from people who believe the district should do more to combat bullying, and he said it's working to do just that.

Even before Celeste Wills' death, the district planned to roll out several new anti-bullying strategies next year, including a cyberbullying policy as schools begin the drive to provide every student in grades three through 12 with a tablet computer.

Evans said he wants to ensure the district emphasizes anti-bullying constantly, not just at the beginning of the school year or during October, which is national bullying-prevention awareness month.

However, McCord cautioned that there is a limit to the district's ability to prevent bullying. Students have lives outside the school, after all, and the wider community must remain vigilant, as well.

"If we make reporting anonymously available by phone, text or email, and parents have that information, as well as students and staff, what else is it that schools could be doing or should be doing?" McCord asked.

Although suicide can seldom be attributed to a single factor, Lieberman said, bullying and the depression it can cause play a large role.

Celeste's parents say that after her death, several of their daughter's friends approached them to apologize for not saying something or doing more when they saw or suspected she was being bullied or feeling sad.

School district spokesman Foster said that sometimes the proper course becomes evident only after a tragedy. He hopes young people will consider Celeste's death and speak up if they see a friend suffering.

"You have to keep working on that to make them see it really is in their best interest and the best interest of their friends to step up and say something, but we will keep working on it," Foster said. "We have to."

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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