Teachers, parents team up to battle bullies
By Kristen J. Tsetsi
The 2006 suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier of Missouri, who killed herself after being bullied by a grown woman on the social networking Web site MySpace, served as a harsh reminder that bullying isn’t just teasing and hair-pulling.
And more recently, a local group of mothers addressed the Enfield Board of Education after their daughters were suspended from Fermi High School for defending themselves from a group of six bullies who had been pestering them for months.
“It’s a national public health issue,” says Dr. Matthew Masiello, vice president of the Conemaugh Healthcare System in Johnstown, Penn., and director of Johnstown’s Office of Community Health.
The behavior, which can begin as early as preschool and peaks in middle school, affects at least 15 percent of the school population on any given day, Masiello says, adding that thousands of students miss school every day because of bullying.
According to a 2007 report by the Children’s Safety Network, survey results indicated in 2001 that 17 percent of school children grades six through 10 had been bullied with some regularity, 19 percent had engaged in bullying, and 6 percent had been both perpetrators and victims of bullying.
“This is an important issue, whether the child is a second-grader or an eighth-grader,” Masiello says.
The long-term effects of bullying, according to Masiello, include trouble with the law, truancy, poor academic performance, symptoms of depression, and unacceptable work behavior. A certain amount of children also go on to be felons and have arrest records, he says, adding, “The most extreme cases involve suicide or violent acts.”
The Children’s Safety Network reports there is evidence bullying may have been related to the 1999 Columbine school shootings in Colorado.
Bullying, as a behavior, can be difficult for the victim to identify, which can in turn make it difficult to report. How can a child — or an adult, for that matter — know whether the taunting is an isolated occurrence or bona fide bullying?
Connecticut law defines bullying as an act repeated against the same (person) over time.
“If a child feels bad on a repetitive basis as a result of what another child is doing, they’re being bullied,” Masiello says.
If the child can’t identify what’s happening, it’s possible the parents may be able to. Masiello says children who wake up in the morning and complain about having to go to school, or who come home and don’t participate in usual activities or have torn or tattered clothes and no lunch money, may be victims of bullying.
School officials might take note of the child who’s more likely to lash out in frustration, is a loner, is not doing well academically, who’s not involved in any community or school-related events, or whose parents don’t attend school functions.
“That child may not have been the outcast until he or she was bullied,” Masiello says. “Once the child is bullied, they become more reserved, more introspective.”
Identifying the bully
Dr. Melissa Holt, research assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, says that while every person with certain characteristics commonly assigned to bullies doesn’t necessarily end up bullying, there is a set of traits more common to bullies than to non-bullies.
“Bullies are more likely to have behavioral, emotional, and/or learning problems than their peers, and to have parents who use physical discipline and condone the use of violence,” Holt says.
She adds that bullies also tend to have friends who are also involved in bullying.
Masiello says they are children “not sympathetic to the plight of others. There are some basic virtues that are missing.”
He also says that while it’s long been assumed bullies are the dominating and domineering figure in the school system, that’s not necessarily the case.
“These bullies have self-deprecating characteristics,” he says. “They’re just placed in a situation, either in environment or other social situations, that prompt them to place themselves in a position of superiority.”
That bullies place themselves in a position of superiority is more true for boys than for girls, Masiello explains, adding that girls tend to focus on more subtle psychological bullying.
“Passive ignoring or making fun of, or catcalling, or name-calling of the peer, or starting rumors about peers,” he says, is the modus operandi of the female bully.
Parents might have the most difficulty identifying their own children as bullies, particularly because most parents don’t want to believe something negative about their own child.
“How can my child possibly be a bully? It can’t possibly be my little John or Mary,” Masiello says is the typical reaction.
Additionally, to the parents of the child being identified as a bully, the problem might not seem major.
But to the child who is being bullied, he says, it is.
Why they bully
Because insecurity issues are the driving force behind bullying, that bullies gain a personal sense of empowerment from their behavior is the obvious answer to the question “why.”
“Bullies gain some level of satisfaction that they don’t have in their lives,” Masiello says. “They’re not the most athletic or the best academically, so they need to find something that gives them attention or pleasure.”
Part of what gives them pleasure is the following they can acquire, and further support comes from bystanders who do nothing.
“That directly or indirectly enforces the actions of the bully,” Masiello says.
Boys and girls have somewhat different targets, however, with boy bullies focusing on someone perceived as being weaker, and girl bullies placing their attention on someone they view as socially superior.
“Boy bullies tend to prey on the boy who’s doing well academically, and to some boys that might be a sign of weakness,” Masiello says. “Girls who are bullied usually are the more popular girls. Scholastically, the girl who is doing well, who is pretty … all of these are sometimes attributes of a female that attracts the bully to them.”
Holt says some additional characteristics of targets include the presence of a disability, enrollment in remedial education, and demonstrated insecurity and anxiety.
Children who bully often don’t outgrow their behavior, the Children’s Safety Network reports. Without intervention, they’re likely to carry it into their adult, personal, family, and work relationships.
The most important thing a child can do, Masiello says, is report any incidents to parents.
“The next step is to work with the teachers or the superintendent or the school board.”
But too many parents and officials don’t report the behavior once it’s been brought to their attention by children. What stops them, Masiello says, is a lack of adult understanding of the consequences of bullying on children.
Also, children might fear approaching an adult if they are victims of bullying, but Holt says those afraid to do it on their own should bring a friend.
“It’s important that youths who are being bullied tell someone so they can obtain the help they need,” she says.
Masiello encourages bystanders to take an active role, stressing that their direct or indirect participation in stopping the behavior, whether by speaking directly to the bully or reporting the behavior to adults, can have a dramatic effect on the overall environment.
And parents are encouraged to sit down with their children and outline behavior guidelines if there’s been any indication they might be doing the bullying in school.
“Say, ‘Listen, this is not how we behave in this family. We respect others,’” Masiello says.
But it doesn’t stop there. The parent should also apologize to the other parent, to the child who’s been victimized, and then do what it takes to ensure the behavior is not repeated.
“It takes communication and a level of maturity on the part of the parent,” Masiello adds.
And while he would like to see the implementation of a universal program to deal with bullying issues, there isn’t one, yet.
But Masiello is working on it.
He created the HALT program, or the Highmark Healthy High 5 initiative, a bullying prevention program modeled after the Olweus Bullying Prevention program devised by world-recognized bullying expert Dan Olweus.
The Olweus program introduces the issue of bullying in the school environment and addresses the issues of bullying and what can be done from the perspective of the child being bullied, the bully, and the bystanders, and the responsibility of adults present in the daily lives of children.
“Many communities, schools, and organizations in the country have adopted the Olweus program,” Masiello says. “The tools you need to address bullying are evidence-based, tried and true programs that have been demonstrated to work.”
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