Bullying policies fail to address problem
In about eighty-five percent of bullying cases, teachers and administration make no effort to stop the bullying. Now, unfortunately, this problem hits a little too close to home.
Screen shot by Andrea Rochat
With the extreme rise of cyber-bullying, social media sites such as Facebook have initiated privacy and safety policies to help protect users from online aggression.
Graphic by Elizabeth Timberlake-Newell
Numbers gathered from 29,764 students from 78 schools.
Study conducted by Center for Safe Schools, a division of Center for Schools and Communities.
Bullying policies fail to address problem
by Sierra Dole
Bullying has become an epidemic in public high schools all across America, reaching far beyond headlines about school shootings and increased teen suicide. According to bullyingstatistics.org, thirty percent of all middle school and high school students in the United States are involved in bullying as either a victim, bully or both and eighty percent are bullied online. In about eighty-five percent of bullying cases, teachers and administration make no effort to stop the bullying. Now, unfortunately, this problem hits a little too close to home.
Jesse Ballenger, a senior at State College High School, pointed out in the June issue that even small-town-central Pennsylvania isn’t immune to the problem of bullying and cyberbullying, as both he and his peers have witnessed. High numbers like these, along with an increasing awareness of the consequences of bullying have forced local schools to rethink their policies on bullying.
According to Ballenger, although his high school has implemented bullying policies such as reporting harassment and assigning disciplinary action, the students, himself included, have not seen a decrease in the hostile behavior and claim that the solution may come from a deeper, more substantial change.
“We cannot wait for a suicide or an act of violence before action is taken, because by then it will be too late,” Ballenger said. “What happens next at State High and the other schools goes far beyond just watching a movie or punishing students. We need to change the mentality and the action of how we treat each other.”
The lack of school response
Ballenger isn’t the only student who sees a lack of school response to the local bullying crisis. Rose Fye, a junior at Central Mountain High School, has been victimized by her fellow students due to an inter-clique relationship.
“No one really wanted me and [my boyfriend] together because he was more popular,” Fye said. “They’d call me a whore, slut, weird, and gross and there were a lot of rumors [about my sex life] going around about stuff that wasn’t even true just to make me look bad.”
The bullying didn’t stop in school, though. Harrassers repeatedly sent Fye vicious messages on social media websites such as Facebook and Tumblr. They called her names such as slut and whore, and said she should kill herself. Fye’s only escape from the harassment was to delete her accounts. Fye reported both the in-school and online harassment to a teacher, but the school failed to take action, as they had with her older sister in the past.
“I told this one teacher, but I didn’t want her telling [other teachers and students] and causing a big deal about it,” Fye said. “Nothing was done about it, though.”
Fye’s hesitancy to make her story heard by many echoes similar concerns among other victims who hesitate to report bullying for fear of further harassment, embarrassment, or retribution for voicing their victimization.
Policy 249 in the school’s policy manual states that, “The Keystone Central School District directs that complaints of bullying shall be investigated promptly and corrective action shall be taken when all allegations are verified.”
According to Fye, not only was nothing done about the problem, but a different teacher began bullying her as well.
Ron Fye, Rose’s father, said he knew about the bullying of his daughter, but was unsure what to do about it because the school did not acknowledge the problem or address its solution.
“The school kind of brushed it off like they had more important things to do,” Ron said. “I don’t think the school did what they should have. They acted like they didn’t want to be bothered with the problem.”
Faculty at Central Mountain High School refused to comment on the situation.
The cycle of bullying violence
With a lack of response from school officials in the face of bullying, some students are beginning to explore their own solutions.
“There was a fight almost every day last year at school,” Fye said. “Most of the time, if you’re being bullied and you defend yourself [physically], you will get in trouble, too.”
Luke Purnell, a senior at Bellefonte Area High School, knows this all too well. Purnell, a football player, said that for three years he was bullied by some of the more popular football players who would call him fat and physically attack him. According to Purnell, his school has a student assistance program in which teachers reach out and establish dialogue with reported bullies in order to address and prevent further aggression. Purnell reported the problem to one of the counselors in the assistance program, who spoke with the bullies.
“But it doesn’t stop them,” Purnell said. “In the end, I was told to ignore it a lot, but that’s one of the hardest things to do. It made me think how bad [the bully’s] life has to be to think about mine so much, which helped me cope. But it never fixed it.”
Purnell’s efforts to stop the harassment through the student assistance program backfired; his bullies became more vengeful and harassed Purnell. After seeing no improvement in the situation, Purnell claimed he took the matter into his own hands.
“I don’t deal with [physical harassment] well, so anytime someone did something to me I did it right back to them,” Purnell said. “The one time, I punched a kid in the mouth. They stopped bullying me after that, but I got suspended for two weeks and fined $550 for assault, while the other kids got nothing. Since the school wouldn’t do anything about it, I had to take it into my own hands and then got into trouble for it.”
The vice principal at the time of the incident, also the football coach, was not available for comment.
Ron Fye said that he notices favoritism within local school districts as well.
“[Kids who] play sports, it seems like all they get is a slap on the hand and told not to do it again,” Fye said. “A week later they find someone else to bully. It never ends.”
According to Jenna Saul, a psychiatrist at The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry based in Washington, D.C., bully favoritism is, unfortunately, quite common.
“There’s this stereotype that the bullies are disliked, but the reality is that most of the bullies are well liked,” Saul said. “Often the bullies are quite popular…and are even liked by adults. So, what are the educators and the school staff modeling in the school environment? They reinforce bullying.”
Another consideration in this conversation is an increasing awareness of the other victims of bullying.
According to Saul, schools shouldn’t focus only on the bullies and the victims, but also on the witnesses to bullying incidents, and the students forced to inhabit an atmosphere made more hostile and unstable by peer aggression.
“I think most people forget about the observers of bullying,” Saul said. “Kids who are a witness to bullying may report that they feel that they are in an unsafe environment, they may feel fearful, powerless to act, guilty for not acting and they may feel tempted to participate. It can adversely affect learning and [students] may believe that the teachers and staff don’t care about them and have no control of the school. So, it affects the entire school community’s sense of the school environment.”
The punitive approach
Saul claimed it is crucial for schools to implement anti-bullying programs. However, she added, schools tend to make uneducated decisions about which programs they choose to implement.
“The problem is that most schools are trying to implement touchy-feely anti-bullying campaigns that seem right,” Saul said. “We would never teach our children without an evidence-based process. We would never allow doctors to treat our children without evidence-based medicine. And yet, we do allow schools to implement little campaigns that just ‘seem right’ as opposed to saying, ‘There are anti-bullying programs out there that have been tested and have data suggesting that they’re effective. And those are the programs that should be implemented.’”
Instead of instructing students to be respectful of one another, most schools, including those in Central Pennsylvania, use a punitive system, which teaches students to look out for themselves and refrain from bullying to avoid receiving detention, suspension, or missing class trips.
Saul said she does not believe in zero tolerance models for bullying, adding that school policies of punishing students for bullying one another sends the wrong message and is not an efficient way of handling the situation.
“It’s a punitive model,” Saul said. “And what do we know about punishment? Our jails, our prisons, they’re full. So, punishment is not a deterrence, and if we can think about creating pro-social environments, instead of creating consequences that we expect will impede behaviors, then we’re really responding to what we know from social science.”
Transforming the system
David Tulin, executive director at the Fellowship Farm Training Center for Human Relations in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, agreed that schools should avoid punitive anti-bullying programs that wait for the hostile behavior to occur before investigating and reprimanding students.
Tulin discussed a Fellowship Farm program called ‘Upstanders, Not Bystanders’ that encourages initiative and open lines of communication.
“One of the ways we talk about becoming an upstander is knowing who to go to so that someone will take the situation seriously and not shove it under the rug,” Tulin said.
Tulin said that often, teachers who receive reports of bullying will blame the victim for instigating the incident. It’s also common for teachers to ignore reported incidents of bullying or overreact to the situation and embarrass the student. This behavior, Tulin argued, leads to a cycle of silence that leaves the problem unaddressed and, therefore, unresolved.
“[The punitive system] teaches other kids not to say a word because they don’t want to make [the situation] worse than it is,” Tulin said. “They want to do what is appropriate and what they think is needed.”
According to Tulin, too many schools use punishment to stop a problem. However, programs such as Fellowship Farm take students outside of their hostile school environment and use peer mediation between the bullies, victims and bystanders to create a new culture among students where they can communicate effectively and prevent the bullying mentality.
“We ask, ‘how can we get these young people to openly and, in some way, trustingly talk about it?” Tulin said. “So, we do a retreat where we take them out of the school where they can take off their masks and begin to develop more trusting relationships and share with external facilitators.”
Tulin said during the mediation, counselors meet with the students, discuss their situations and ask them to give an example of a way they would have handled the hostile incident as an upstander, bystander or perpetrator. They also examine communication skills, the concepts behind bullying and the very natural desire for students to fit in and adapt their behavior according to the environment.
“[We discuss] how the more bystanders there are watching the bully the less people will intervene because it almost feels like there’s a conformist pressure to not stick out,” Tulin said. “We remind them that if bystanders stop being bystanders, many bullies would stop doing it because they need the gratification from people watching them.”
Tulin said that many local schools need help restructuring anti-bullying programming, but that most of these schools deny there is a problem and refuse help.
“We have the money to invite people to come and do this program,” Tulin said. “Unfortunately, most of the schools, including those who were in the headlines for bullying issues, responded by saying ‘We don’t need this’ or ‘We’ve got it covered, thank you’ or ‘We have our thing here’. Rarely is it a significant culture change, though.”
According to Tulin, if schools want to improve their communities and prevent aggression between their students, they need to be willing to reconstruct their programs and ask for help.
“I wish the school districts, principals and superintendents would say ‘Let’s be proactive about this,’” Tulin said. “There are people who do come to our upstander program, and those are people who are healthier and know ‘We’re good but we’re not great yet. We’re human and we have a wonderful school, but we’re not perfect. And we want to make sure we make our place better.’”
Tulin said that many schools are hesitant to even admit that bullying occurs in their halls and in the digital spaces inhabited by their students because they worry such an admission may damage the image of the school. And often, Tulin claimed, schools handle situations they deem more important and side-step the more pervasive and unseen problem of bullying.
Local school officials could not be reached for comment.
“If somebody used the n-word in school or, God forbid, sexually harassed or molested somebody, you can be sure everybody would be on top of this,” Tulin said. “However, bullying is often diminished or denied by saying ‘Oh, this is just kids being kids’. And, at one point, [this behavior] was natural, but then with social media and so much hate in the adult world that is sinking in, kids are seriously impacted and scarred by these things.”
Ballenger agreed that bullying today should not be considered normal developmental behavior.
“Bullying is often written off as a natural part of life, that causing mental and physical pain is a normal part of growing up,” Ballenger said. “This is not the way life has to be.”
The start of the new academic year brings a chance for local schools to transform themselves , and the ways in which their policies, their faculty and their students address bullying and cyberbullying. Although the problem of peer aggression is a complicated and often times delicate one, students like Ballenger are ready to help.
“We look forward to working with the school board, teachers and the State College community in creating a culture where we practice respect, and we are good at it,” Ballenger said.