By Kristen Miller
DASSEL-COKATO, MN “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is a riddle that doesn’t hold much water for young people who are being bullied by their peers. Check out Kristen Miller's column, 'Revenge for Phoebe.'
Bullying “is not just words. It’s very, very hurtful and can be very damaging,” said Sandy Jones, Dassel-Cokato Middle School social worker.
The consequences of bullying recently made national news with the tragic story of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old who took her life after an on-going spree of bullying by her classmates at a Massachusetts high school.
Even more recently, and closer to home, a Hastings Middle School student terrified his classmates April 5 by waving a .22 caliber around, forcing the school to go into lock-down.
The Hastings Police Chief told the Star Tribune the student was “having some issues with a group of kids.” No one was injured.
In the Prince case, not only are nine teenagers being held accountable, but there are also allegations that school officials knew about the bullying, yet did not address it.
The Dassel-Cokato School District deals with each bullying situation seriously and in a progressive manner, according to DC Superintendent Jeff Powers.
The district’s bullying policy is six pages long, and defines bullying and addresses the policy’s purpose, reporting procedures, action taken by the district, reprisal, along with training and education for its staff and students.
The district at all levels stresses prevention and creating a climate that is healthy for learning with the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, which the district adopted in 2006.
The program defines bullying as: “A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.”
The definition includes three components of bullying:
• Bullying is aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions.
• Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time.
• Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.
According to the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center, an estimated 30 percent of America’s youth (or 5.7 million) have been involved in bullying as either a bully, a target of bullying, or both.
Bullying can take on many forms including verbal, racial, sexual, physical, being threatened or forced to do things, lies and rumors, social exclusion or isolation, and having property damaged or taken.
The use of technology has also brought bullying into cyberspace, where it can be done through social media web sites and via text messaging. This has become known as cyberbullying (visit www.stopcyberbullying.org for more information).
Bullying is more than a fight between classmates or rough play among friends, Jones said.
“Oftentimes, [the target] can’t defend themselves,” she added, referring to the imbalance of power that is typically present.
The Olweus program suggests using specific terminology. For example, the person being bullied is described as the target instead of the victim.
“We don’t want them (the target) to feel like they are a victim,” Jones said.
Instead, the program helps the target by giving them the strength, skills, and coping mechanisms that will diminish bullying on their own.
Oftentimes, the person being bullied doesn’t have the confidence to stand up for themselves, according to Jones.
“What’s most devastating is, they start thinking they deserve it,” she said.
That is why it’s so important not only for witnesses to come forward reporting such behavior, but also to take a stance against bullying and show others it’s not OK, Jones explained.
Through the Olweus program, all district staff, including cooks and bus drivers, are trained to intervene and bring information to the school social workers and administrators.
Anyone who witnesses bullying is also to report such instances immediately.
At the elementary level
At the elementary level, the focus of Olweus is building good character that will deter such behavior.
Since bullying is considered to be behavior that is repeated through time, schools try to be proactive by looking at a situation before it turns into bullying, said Heidi Sickman, Cokato Elementary social worker.
Every case is specific and different, she said.
Teasing is negative behavior commonly seen among elementary students, but sometimes it’s just kids not being nice and only one incident, Sickman explained.
Other times, there is name calling on a regular basis and the constant feeling of being excluded that would need to be addressed, she said.
“We really encourage kids to tell a grown up if they are being bullied or don’t feel safe,” she said.
It’s been a good thing, Sickman said, that Cokato Elementary hasn’t had many incidences involving bullying.
Children are encouraged to report when they see such behavior and are given these safety steps.
• Say “stop,” “no,” or “leave me alone.”
• Walk away or get away from the person or situation.
• Go and tell a grown up.
At the middle school level
Since the Olweus program is not intended to be a curriculum for schools to follow, it deals with prevention and problem- solving, making it systematic over time, Jones explained.
It’s not only about reducing bullying, Jones said. It’s about improving peer relations and the school climate.
“Olweus is just one facet,” she said.
“We want a climate where everyone can feel safe . . . and can come to learn well,” Jones said.
Throughout the year, students are exposed to various activities surrounding the district’s character-building pillars.
“We try and teach our children character values that will lead them to be good people,” Jones said.
These six characteristics are respect, responsibility, resiliency, integrity, compassion, and understanding diversity.
It’s also about building one’s confidence that they are a good person and don’t deserve to be mistreated, she explained.
At the high school level
At the high school level, Steven Schauberger, high school dean of students, takes reports of bullying very seriously by conducting a complete investigation.
If a case of bullying has been reported, Schauberger begins by talking with teachers to see if they are aware of such behavior during class, along with speaking to other eyewitnesses.
Schauberger may also review camera footage from throughout the school.
“Cameras have been extremely helpful in holding kids accountable,” Schauberger said.
A complete investigation like this is typically done within a day or two, according to Schauberger.
“We want to get to it fast,” he said.
Since many targets of bullying are apprehensive to report such behavior, Schauberger says it’s critical that witnesses come forth as soon as possible.
“They need to tell me right away . . . otherwise it can get out of control and we don’t want that to happen,” he said.
Consequences vary for the offender (bully), depending on severity.
According to school policy, after an investigation is complete, the district will take appropriate action.
The offender is also warned that retaliation is strictly forbidden and can lead to further consequences.
The end goal is to have restorative justice between all parties involved and their parents, according to Schauberger. This would include a meeting, sharing how each party was affected.
“. . . and hope the behavior wouldn’t be repeated,” he said.