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Scourge of the schoolyard: Technology alone isn't enough. By teaching children--and adults--to fight bullying, schools are making their communities safer. (Special focus: School Security).

"I HATE BEING LAUGHED AT. But they won't laugh after they're scraping parts of their parents, sisters, brothers, and friends from the wall of my hate." These words were written in the journal of 15-year-old Kip Kinkel, who later killed both of his parents and then went into his high school in Springfield, Oregon, and shot more than two dozen students, two of them fatally.

The murders in Oregon were part of a wave of school shootings, spread far across the map of America, that triggered a national debate over methods to prevent similar tragedies from occurring. Physical security measures were investigated, discussed, and implemented. But another side of the debate focused on the motives behind the murders. Bullying was quickly identified as a prime suspect.

The dangers. Though bullying was not the only factor behind Kinkel's slaying spree and is not an element of every school shooting, it is widely recognized as a significant consideration. A recent study by the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center that looked at 37 school shootings determined that in more than two-thirds of the attacks, "the attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others" before they staged their own assault. Studies by the American Psychiatric Association and the National School Safety Center have also identified being bullied as a potential causal factor in teen violence.

Studies indicate that there is also a link between bullying and a future involvement with crime. A recent report by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed that bullies and their victims have poor levels of "psychosocial functioning," which can lead to run-ins with law enforcement later in life. The JAMA research estimated that more than 16 percent of U.S. schoolchildren are bullied--and almost 20 percent admitted to being bullies.

There is also a hidden cost. In the shadow of the school shootings that captured the country's attention lies a larger but less visible group of victims, says Glenn Stutzky of Michigan State University's School of Social Work, who has helped champion a program called "Bully-Proofing Your Schools" across Michigan. These victims are the youngsters whose anger, frustration, and loss of self-esteem results in violence directed not at others but at themselves.

"Suicide is bullying's quiet little secret," Stutzky says. "It's one kid at a time, so it doesn't catch our attention." Based on suicide statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control, Stutzky says that a very conservative estimate of how many suicides by children under the age of 19 are bully-related--what he calls "bullycide victims"--would equal "a dozen Columbines in terms of the actual body count.

Taking action. Recognizing the magnitude of the problem, many school systems are implementing some form of bully-proofing program. Two counties in Michigan-- Oakland County, just north of Detroit, and Calhoun County, in the southwest part of the state--are using the "Bully-Proofing Your Schools" curriculum recommended by Stutzky. The program, created by educators and counselors in Colorado, is based on a curriculum originally developed in Scandinavia, where a campaign against school bullying was launched nearly two decades ago.

Goals. The program's objective is to make a preemptive strike at the root causes of school violence and crime. "It's too late when we have a body in the street or have to put a wrongdoer in prison," explains Tom Robertson, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Coordinating Council (PACC), a state agency that provides services such as legal education and training to prosecuting attorneys and which helped launch the Oakland County bully-proofing program. "We'd like to avoid that and to focus on what we can do to stop or reduce the instances of bullying that were resulting not only in school violence," but in later collisions with the criminal justice system.

Getting started. While Calhoun County received a grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation about five years ago to initiate their bully-proofing program, the Oakland County program is part of a larger, more recent statewide effort that has been spearheaded by the Prosecutor Attorneys Association of Michigan with the assistance of the PACC.

"We came up with a proposal where we would train representatives from the prosecutors offices around the state to then train school personnel in the bully-proofing program," says PACC's Robertson. "Then it would be up to the local prosecutors to work with the school districts in their county to see if they were interested in adopting the program and working it into their school process at the elementary-school level. That's where the studies have found it to he most effective," he says. The local prosecutors were viewed as the best ambassadors for the program because of their existing relationships with the school superintendents and principals who would have to be sold on the plan.

Prosecutors are taught how to present a two-day training course to social workers, counselors, and teachers serving the district's elementary schools. Eventually prosecutors and educators will develop a similar program for middle and high school students as well. Focusing first on the youngest children will be a way to "correct the bullying behavior before it becomes second nature to a kid as he or she grows older," says Daniel Cojanu, victim services supervisor in the Oakland County prosecutor's office.

Cojanu, who helped get the program up and running in Michigan, says the response from the schools was even better than he had hoped. "We set up the training and invited about 300 schools," he says. "I had anticipated 25 to 30 social workers and counselors attending, but 100 signed up and 65 more were placed on a waiting list," he says.

How it works. There are several components to the "Bully-Proofing Your Schools" curriculum that Oakland and Calhoun counties use. Some aspects of the program focus on the students, while others target teachers, school staff, and parents.

Student education. The first component is classroom lessons for all students, where the concept of bullying is discussed and its impact is described. In this section, students learn the basic tactics that those targeted by bullies can use as a defense, called HAHASO. The acronym describes these six strategies: Help others; Assert yourself; Humor as a form of defense; Avoid bullies when possible; Self-talk (where a victim quietly confirms to him- or herself that what the bully said is not true); and Own it, where a student will turn the situation around and agree with a bully, taking the bully's power away.

Sandra Hood, a counselor at Washington Gardner Middle School in Calhoun County, explains how some of these strategies might be used. "For example," she says, "if they're in a lunch line and someone behind them keeps pushing them, if they want to use the assertive strategy, they might turn around and say, '[Sam], I don't like it when you push me. Please stop."' The strategy often works, according to Hood, because bullies are not used to people addressing them by name, or directly.

If a student in the same situation was more comfortable using humor, he or she might say something like, "Wow! We're all jam-packed in here, I'm starting to feel a little like a Weeble, how about you?" The bully might find this amusing, but it would also show that the bully is not the only one being inconvenienced by the line. Hood says that the students are taught that every strategy doesn't work for every situation, nor is every strategy best for every student. "For instance, some kids can't pull off humor," she says, "especially somebody who's got a caustic sense of humor, because the intent doesn't always come across.

The main point of these strategies is to teach bullied students how to show the bully that they are not intimidated. The lessons are interactive, to ensure better participation and learning from the children. Teachers use traditional written exercises and games such as word puzzles that encourage discussion, but the emphasis is on role-play exercises.

For the role-plays, a teacher usually acts the part of the bully, enabling him or her to control the direction of the exercise. "We've done a skit where the children are on a bus," Hood says, "and the bully grabs another kid's bookbag and throws it down. The kids first act out the situation in the ways in which children normally respond," such as yelling or crying. Then, the teacher stops the exercise and asks the class to think which strategy would work best in the particular situation.

The class decides as a group which strategy to try, and the role-players begin the role-play again, this time using the decided-on strategy. "Sometimes the kids might pick a strategy that's not going to work; maybe the kids pick the assertive strategy," but the bully is not put off. The role-play is stopped again, and the class discusses the situation. If they decide that the student used the strategy well, but it wasn't effective, they discuss what to try next; in this case, perhaps they would decide to tell the bus driver.

The curriculum is designed for classroom lessons once a week for eight weeks, with 30-40 minutes dedicated to each lesson. Ideally, says Stutzky, schools will weave the curriculum into the social fabric of the school. "I encourage this to be incorporated into the life and climate of school," he says, adding that some schools have extended the program through the full school year.

Tailored discussion. Another component of the program is for social workers and counselors to meet separately with groups of students who have been identified as targets of bullies and with groups of students identified as bullies. In these sessions, which are held once a week for six weeks concurrent with the main program, the trainers have a chance to discuss the material in more depth, tailoring the dialog to each group's particular situation.

"For targets, it gives them a safe place to talk and share their experiences," says Stutzky. "They then can work on personal skills and self-esteem issues and learn to do whatever possible to deal with the situation."

By contrast, notes Stutzky, "the bullies work on trying to realize the impact of their actions and behaviors on others, and look at some positive ways that [they] can obtain power in healthy ways."

One way to channel a bully's energy in a positive direction is to get him or her involved as a project leader in the bully-proofing program. For example, under adult supervision, a student identified as a bully could help run a bully-proofing poster contest.

Caring majority. The next component deals with changing the attitude and behavior of the "silent majority"--the bulk of the children who are neither bullies nor bullied. One of the primary goals of the program is to transform these passive bystanders into a caring majority.

"The idea is, if someone comes over and belittles [a student] and is mean, if other people come around and support the person being bullied, that drains the power advantage away from the bully," Stutzky explains.

Again using role-plays, children who are not directly involved with an incident learn different options to use with bullies, giving them a choice of how to react to a difficult situation. For example, in some cases in the past, other students would watch a bully harass someone, or they would even encourage the action, chanting "fight, fight, fight."

The training teaches kids that they could decide not to watch a fight, quietly seek adult assistance, or announce to the bully that they will seek an administrator. Each child will be comfortable with a different response, Stutzky explains, and the role-plays give the children the chance to practice taking action.

Staff's role. "Bully-proofing teaches children to be responsible for each others' safety and to stand up for fellow students," says Oakland County's Cojanu. "It also teaches adults that they must intervene to assist the kids being bullied. The old adage of 'just stay out of their way,' and other pearls of wisdom, just don't cut it anymore."

To help put these old saws to rest, teachers and school administrators receive a full day of training in the bully-proofing curriculum. They also help plan how best to implement the curriculum in their school.

The program doesn't stop when the school bell rings. Children face bullies after school, on the bus, and on the streets, so another component of the program is a collaboration with parents to make them aware of the bully-proofing principles. This component gives them advice on what to do if a child is a bully or is a victim of bullies, and it lets them know how they can support what the school is doing.

In addition, to further involve parents, community leaders, and other adults that the children may look up to, individuals from among these groups may be recruited to teach a class. For example, basketball star Jerry Stackhouse of the Detroit Pistons volunteered to speak to some Oakland County children.

Resistance. While many school administrators have supported the program, Stutzky says, getting other adults to accept bullying as a real concern has been more difficult, adding that adults are reluctant to recognize the depth of the problem--or even acknowledge that it is a problem. "Bullying is embedded in our culture," he says, "as American as apple pie."

The first step toward getting adults to understand the problem is to properly define it. "People confuse normal peer conflict with a bully-victim situation," Stutzky says. "I define bullying as a relationship in which one individual seeks to dominate and control and terrorize the life of another." Adults, he says, don't realize the severity of the problem, because they don't see it through the eyes of the children.

But when adults fail to intervene, they exacerbate the situation. Both the bullying and the lack of adult response are seen by victims as a form of injustice, Stutzky says. "If as adults we don't bring justice to bear in these situations, some of them are going to take up arms to resolve the matter themselves," he warns.

Recommended response. "It's particularly important to set up a process in elementary school where kids know that if they report a bullying act, the bully will be dealt with, the problem will be solved, and the kid will not be beaten up worse for tattling," says PACC's Robertson. The program, therefore, also includes general recommendations that schools can adopt for dealing with incidents of bullying that do occur.

School staff are trained not to let any bullying incident go unaddressed. Staff are also involved in creating the program's rewards. For example, some schools offer "I Caught You Caring" awards to students who have used the bully-proofing principles.

School staff must also decide how bullying incidents will be treated in terms of the consequences to the bully. Disciplinary actions should be designed to change behavior rather than solely to inflict punishment, Stutzky says. For example, for a first offense, a bully might receive a warning. For a second offense, he or she might have to miss recess and help the office staff.

Further punishments should try to focus on teaching good behavior, such as by requiring that the bully write a report on an altruistic leader so that the student can see that a powerful person can be kind and deserving of respect. Stutzky says: "The basic message is we don't want to throw bullies out of school; [we should] work with them to see what they can do on a personal basis."

While some recommendations are described within the bully-proofing curriculum, Stutzky says that it's up to school administrators to add to these recommendations and to plan their own strategy.

The school should, among other initiatives, set up mechanisms that ensure uniformity of treatment and that help ensure that teachers will share information about bullying incidents among themselves. For example, if a bully causes trouble in gym class, there should be a routine procedure that the gym teacher can follow to make other teachers aware of the incident. Stutzky says that some schools have created methods of having teachers inform other staff members of a student's actions, so that if future incidents occur, the consequence reflects all earlier actions.

Results. The program is still new in Oakland County, so it's not clear what effect it will have as students progress into junior and senior high school. But Cojanu says that parental response to the program has been positive. Some parents, for example, have written letters expressing their appreciation of the program.

Since Calhoun County has had the program for five years, the results are more evident, and they have been positive, says counselor Hood. "The best thing I've found is that it gives folks a common language and a common approach to bully-proofing," she says. "It gives strategies for us to intervene appropriately on the part of the victim."

Constance Porter is a social worker at Washington Gardner Middle School. She taught the "Bully-Proofing Your Schools" program at the elementary-school level for five years, and helped adapt it to the middle school. She has been impressed with the results. "I'm seeing fewer incidents, and the children like it a lot," she says, especially because they have learned that adults take the situation seriously. "It's knowing that they can report it and someone will hear what they're saying and not just play it down" that the children respond to, she says.

Future. So far, about a hundred people have taken the training in Oakland County. Robertson says that this initial effort was merely priming the pump. "If we get [the program] into several county school systems, and those systems find that it's beneficial and working, then they'll be the lead advocates training other schools. That's the goal," he says. By the end of the year, Stutzky estimates that about half of Michigan's 83 counties will have bully-proof-trained people available. Meanwhile, Cojanu says that the prosecutor's office in Oakland County is hiring a social worker specifically to assist local school districts with training, researching, and updating the program for the middle schools, and consulting on school violence issues.

The potential for violence in American schools remains a serious concern. Taking the bully by the horns is one important preventive measure being adopted by schools. Coupled with other carefully crafted security policies and with proper physical security, antibullying programs can help schools create a safer student environment.

Peter Piazza is assistant editor of Security Management.

RELATED ARTICLE: States Take Action

State lawmakers across the country have started looking at ways to address bullying problems in their schools. Recently, Colorado passed a measure requiring school districts to create bullying education (see "Legal Reporter," page 96).

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Georgia, New Hampshire and Vermont have also created antibullying policies. Georgia has a character education program that includes bullying prevention; repeat offenders can be sent to an alternative school. Antibullying policies are written into New Hampshire's school disciplinary codes, while Vermont's antihazing law prohibits bullying. Other states are looking into similar measures.

Critics charge that these legislative actions are redundant, as most schools already have disciplinary measures in place to deal with bullying incidents, and actions from state legislatures to fight bullying would only serve to usurp local and parental control of the problem. But as long as school violence occurs, it seems certain that lawmakers will continue to focus on ways to keep bullying from being a trigger.
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Date:Nov 1, 2001
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