POSTED ON JULY 11, 2007:
School for Scoundrels? When young people get together, sometimes organic sociology takes over
About 30 percent of schoolchildren in the US grades 6-10 have been bullied.
In the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta, when schoolchildren were bullied by their peers, adults and teachers actually encouraged it. If the target of the bullying didn't learn to stand up for himself and repel the bully and/or bullies with his own wits and fists, he wouldn't make for a very good Spartan, they reasoned.
Although the Spartans and their neighboring city-states laid the foundation for our own civilization, American schools' policies on bullying are typically the precise opposite: "Don't retaliate. Go and find a teacher or administrator to handle it."
Of course, as any student of history knows (or anyone who's seen the cinematic masterpiece that is 300), being a good Spartan meant being a master of physical combat, since Sparta was renowned for having dedicated the whole of its citizenry to perfecting the art of warfare.
As a result, Spartan "schools" were less like our modern day American academic institutions and more akin to our Marine Corps boot camp. Success was measured by surviving to adulthood rather than by any written test scores.
While any comparison between ancient Spartan and modern American approaches to common education would have to be loose at best, periodic outbreaks of school shootings and the increasing frequency of campus violence tend to suggest that the comparison is growing more and more apt every day.
About 30 percent of schoolchildren in the United States in 6th through 10th grades have been bullied, according to a survey conducted by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development.
Gayle Jones, the state Department of Education's Coordinator of Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities, said the 2005/2006 school year saw 12,986 reported incidents of bullying in Oklahoma public schools .
That's up from the previous year's tally at 10,192.
Jack Arnold, Tulsa Public Schools' director of safety and security, said 344 of those incidents for '05/'06 came from his district, which was up from 254 the previous year.
However, according to Jones, it's not because kids are getting meaner and more inclined to thuggery and misanthropy, but because awareness is up and bullying is more likely to be recognized for what it is and reported.
They both acknowledged, though, that those numbers don't account for the countless episodes that victims didn't report to teachers.
Keith Isbell, chief communications officer for Broken Arrow Public Schools, said he didn't have figures on hand for all the bullying episodes that went on for those times, but said what records there are only account for those instances in which a student was suspended for "bullying."
"There is a gray area, because not every offense is going to result in a suspension," he said.
"Of course, there's going to be a lot more bullying and harassment going on on the playground that isn't reported," concurred Arnold.
In most school districts' policies, "bullying" is defined as "any gesture, written or verbal expression, or physical act that a reasonable person should know will harm another student, damage another student's property, place another student in reasonable fear of harm to the student's person or damage to the student's property, or insult or demean any student or group of students in such a way as to disrupt or interfere with the school's educational mission or the education of any student."
"Bullying has been going on as long as human history," Jones expressed to UTW.
"I think bullying is one of those things that have been around forever," he said.
What's relatively new in the world, though, are the recurring tragedies that are invoked with the all-too-familiar household words "Columbine" and "Jonesboro."
When such atrocities occur, the knee-jerk public reaction is usually to reopen that old can of worms having to do with gun control.
Beneath the din of argument over whether or not it's all Charlton Heston's fault, though, another discussion also ensues over what motivated the shooter and/or shooters to amass an arsenal and do the unthinkable in the first place.
"In several cases, individual attackers had experienced bullying and harassment that was long-standing and severe. In some cases the experience of being bullied seemed to have a significant impact on the attacker and appeared to have been a factor in his decision to mount an attack at the school," read the 2002 final report of the "Safe School Initiative," a collaborative effort between the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education.
The study was undertaken in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine massacre.
The research looked at 37 different incidents of school shootings in the U.S. between 1974 and 2000, and found that bullying was typically the common denominator.
"Bullying was not a factor in every case, and clearly not every child who is bullied in school will pose a risk for targeted violence in school. Nevertheless, in a number of the incidents of targeted school violence studied, attackers described being bullied in terms that suggested that these experiences approached torment," the report also read.
The study group made the obvious recommendation: "The prevalence of bullying found in this and other recent studies should strongly support ongoing efforts to reduce bullying in American schools."
If school bullying goes unchecked, though, campus shootings aren't the only repercussions with which schools, parents, students and society at large will have to contend.
Even for the vast majority of bullying victims who don't turn their suffering outward on the rest of the world by turning into mass murderers, there's still a burdensome weight of psychological baggage to carry, according to a recent report by mental health specialists associated with the Mayo Clinic.
Children who have been bullied have higher rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders, substance abuse and suicide, they said.
They'll also have lower self-esteem as adults and be more likely to have mental disorders, such as anger management issues and self-destructive behavior.
The Mayo Clinic experts also found that bullying victims are more likely to miss school and, when they do attend class, have trouble focusing on schoolwork because they're more anxious and fearful about when they'll be victimized again than they are about grades.
Not only are there potentially disastrous consequences to consider for the victims of bullies, but Jones pointed out that little bullies, if uncorrected, tend to grow up into bigger bullies, ranging from violent criminals to abusive parents, who often teach their children to continue the pattern.
According to research cited by state lawmakers as an impetus for a particular piece of legislation (more on that later), Jones is right.
That research has shown that 60 percent of males who were bullies in 6th grade through 9th grade were convicted of at least one crime as adults, and 35-40 percent had three or more convictions by the age of 24.
In summary--according to all the experts (ancient Spartans notwithstanding), bullying is a bad thing that affects everyone.
So, what should be done about it?
In the aftermath of the Columbine shooting and the subsequent findings by the Safe School Initiative, Oklahoma's answer to that question came in 2002 in the form of the School Bullying Prevention Act, by Sen. Herb Rozell, D-Tahlequah, and Rep. Barbara Staggs, D-Muskogee.
In a nutshell, the law mandates that each school utilize existing "Safe School Committees" to develop policies to "prohibit harassment, intimidation and bullying of students."
Jones said the act is the closest thing Oklahoma has to a statewide policy on how schools should deal with bullies.
"Every school district has its own policy on the books to address bullying," she said.
Schools have to draw on their own resources to address the problem, though, as the state provides no additional funding to carry out the 2002 mandate.
Instead, Jones said schools depend on federal Title IV Safe and Drug Free Schools grants to combat bullying and other social ills.
Those funds, though, "are zeroing out under the current administration," she said.
For fiscal year 2005, Jones said the state Department of Education got $4.2 million from the program, $4.1 million for 2006, $3.2 million for 2007 and $3.07 million for 2008.
She said 20 percent of those funds go to the Governor's office and the remaining 80 percent are disbursed to the state's 539 school districts.
After spreading out to so many recipients, Jones said the grants don't amount to a lot.
While the state provides no funding and the federal government provides very little, Jones said the state Education Department does at least offer some guidance for dealing with bullies.
As the state's Safe Schools and Drug Free Communities coordinator, Jones has selected eight different U.S. Department of Education programs that specifically address bullying and "have been proven to work."
The list of programs and the links to them are found on the department's website (www.sde.state.ok.us) for use by school officials and parents.
Also, the state Education Department has the "Safe School Hotline" (1-877-723-3225 ext. 651) for teachers, parents, students or whomever to call with "any concerns about the safety of their local school," including concerns about bullying.
Jones said the department has received almost 6,000 calls since the hotline's inception in 1998.
Closer to home, Arnold said Tulsa Public Schools purchased materials for a counselor-based program called "Bully-proofing Your Schools."
Isbell said such programs "help kids recognize what bullying is and why it's wrong," and have helped "create an environment where it's easier to see what bullying is," which has led to the increased awareness and reportage mentioned by Jones.
"A lot more of it is reported today--it's not like 'the good old days' when people used to see it as just 'kids being kids,'" said Isbell.
While episodes of bullying are more likely to be reported today than in the past, it's still not uncommon for parents and teachers to find out about it when the situation has progressed beyond recovery, potentially culminating in a school shooting and/or suicide.
The Mayo Clinic reported that, with the increasing occurrence of "cyberbullying," it can be even harder for adults to detect.
That's why Jones recommends parents ask for a copy of their child's school's policy and about any programs in use related to bullying, and learn how to recognize the signs to find out if their child is being bullied, or is a bully.
"Parents and teachers ought to be the ones intervening--it's wrong for a child to feel like he's on his own when it comes to worrying about his safety and what to do about violence. They should just worry about learning," she continued.
But, what about the Spartan approach? Should children ever be taught to fight back if they're the target of bullies, especially during those times when there is no teacher or adult nearby to intervene?
"Violence never solves problems--the answer to violence isn't more violence," answered Jones.
"If a kid does fight back, he's going to be held responsible for fighting back," she added.
"We have a zero-tolerance policy on physical confrontation," he said.
"Typically, if a student reacts with violence, that student is going to face the punishment for it, but it depends on the circumstances," Isbell added.
"If it escalates to a physical fight, and it's clear that one child is the aggressor and the other one isn't, probably both would wind up getting a suspension, but the one who wasn't the aggressor wouldn't get as many days," said Arnold.
Arnold was asked--Does that mean, if one kid's trying to beat up another kid for no reason, and the other kid defends himself, the kid who defends himself is going to be punished for it?
"We can't condone fighting," he answered.
Jones, though, clarified, "I'm not saying you can't defend yourself; I'm saying there's another way to deal with it than violence."
The best way to deal with it, she said, is to prevent it from happening in the first place.
And instilling kids with self-confidence is essential to making sure they don't attract the wrong kind of attention from peers.
"Body language is a big clue to bullies that they've found an easy target," said Jones.
"You need to learn how to walk tall, with your shoulders back, and keep your eyes off the floor," she added, noting that "80-90 percent of our problems have to do with lack of social skills" on the parts of bullies and bullied alike.
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