Beating The School Bullies

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BY JEFF NACHTIGAL, Californian staff writer jnachtigal@bakersfield.com
(Original Source)

Last month, 14-year old Nicole Williams came home from Beardsley Junior High School and said, “There’s videos on YouTube of me getting picked on.”

The videos, titled “Messing with Nicole” and “Messing with Nicole 2,” showed a group of girls verbally harassing Nicole and kicking her feet out from under her as she sat against an outside wall at school.

“I was outraged,” said her mom, Annie Dowda, adding she has left work at least four times in the past year to respond to Nicole being bullied.

Nicole, a gregarious teenager who likes to read and counts English and history as her favorite subjects, weighs more than 200 pounds. Much of the bullying she’s faced in the past year has had to do with her weight, she said.

She has been pushed and kicked, Nicole said. “Feed me” sticky notes were stuck to her back. Books were knocked out of her hands in the hallway. And she’s been called a stream of names, from ugly to cow to slut.

The year of bullying has left her daughter’s self-esteem and faith in making friends in tatters, Dowda said.

The YouTube videos are no longer accessible and the student who posted them has been expelled from Beardsley, Dowda said the school told her. School officials said they couldn’t talk about the case.

But Beardsley School District Superintendent Dick Stotler did say a first occurrence of sexual harassment, bullying or threatening can include suspension and expulsion.

“We bring both right in and say, ‘This has got to stop, this is not the way we treat other people,'” said Stotler.

But the day after the bully was reportedly expelled, another girl started a fight with her after school, Nicole said.

Dowda is fit to be tied. She wonders why kids don’t have more respect, and why more can’t be done to stop the bullying of her daughter. She filed a report with the Sheriff’s Department, which kicked the matter back to the school.

BULLYING REALITY

Schools don’t tolerate bullying, but administrators and experts agree it happens.

A California cyber bullying law (AB 86) that took effect Jan. 1 empowers schools to suspend or expel students who bully others through the Internet or cell phones.

And a change in education code that adds bullying to the list of infractions school districts will now report to the state will shed more light on school bullying incidents.

Beardsley has expelled one student under the cyber bullying law. The Kern High School District suspended 11 students last semester for bullying, according to Alan Paradise, director of pupil personnel.

The classic picture of a schoolyard bully beating up the little guy is one example of the problem. Bullying can be verbal (name calling), psychological (rumors), sexual (propositioning or physical contact) and other types of physical harm (spitting, tripping).

“It’s always a concern, even if it’s one parent, and one kid being bullied,” said Daryl Theisen, prevention programs coordinator with the Kern County Superintendent of Schools.

TEACHING ANTI-BULLYING

Because adults rarely see the actual bullying, the idea behind the Safe School Ambassadors program — used in 26 local schools and hundreds nationwide — is to empower students to take control of their environment and change the culture that says “it’s cool to be cruel.”

In January, about 40 of Arvin High’s “social group leaders” — think jocks and goths, skaters and cheerleaders — participated. With an emphasis on role playing, the multi-day program teaches students to be watchdogs and intervene in bullying. As leaders, their positive actions can influence the rest of the campus moreso than any adult.

“It’s like injecting cells into the school to start healing the system,” said Safe School trainer John Linney.

Suspensions have dropped 22 percent and expulsions 53 percent in the five years since Arvin began the training, said Principal Blanca Cavazos.

Other programs have helped improve campus safety, but the training has played a role, she said.

Liberty High introduced the program to combat its bullying problem six years ago and it has created a safer campus, said Principal Pat Preston.

Pushing better communication skills helps alleviate campus stress and fosters stronger “connectedness” between students and the school, Paradise said.

Before a “he-said, she-said” or “girl-boy” rumor turns into a fight, Paradise said, peer conflict mediation resolves many issues.

“Is it any wonder we have bullying when we’ve stopped saying ‘Thank you?’ school violence prevention expert Wayne Sakamoto posed to Kern County educators at an anti-bullying conference in November.

Fostering life skills such as respect, empathy and kindness to strangers is a critical early intervention technique.

“Talking about bully prevention, that’s what it boils down to — basic etiquette,” said Sakamoto.

CYBERBULLYING AND THE BUDGET

The No. 1 school safety issue that comes up at state regional meetings is bullying, said Linda Sargent, Safe Schools consultant with the Kern County Superintendent’s Office. And cyber bullying is the biggest concern.

But bullying and other school safety issues may get worse before they get better, given education budget cutbacks, said Sargent.

“I’ve already had calls from parents on this issue. School safety issues are going to increase with less people to support the districts,” said Sargent, who said that families are going to have to be on top of this, too.

One answer to fewer resources, Sakamoto suggested, is ensuring “students are involved in our efforts.”

ON TO HIGH SCHOOL

Nicole Williams will attend North High next fall, where she’s been accepted into the AVID college-prep program.

Recently Nicole read the classic coming-of-age novel The Outsiders, in which the main character named Pony Boy struggles with status and finding a place in society.

“I’m not saying it’s the same, but Pony Boy doesn’t get picked on like I do,” Nicole said reverently about the story.

“He may get jumped, but he doesn’t get picked on.”