POSTED ON JUNE 6, 2012:
Advice to anonymous Tulsa parent highlights frustration, angst over bullying
Don't underestimate the influence of Dear Abby.
The advice column claims to appear in about 1,400 newspapers worldwide, with a daily readership of more than 110 million people, though it hasn't run in the pages of the Tulsa World since 2006. But Abby remains close to the heart of at least one local parent: "Worried About My Boy in Tulsa," who recently had a question published in the column.
"My 7-year-old son, 'Kenny,' is being bullied at school. He was punched so hard in the stomach that I had to get him medical care," began the letter writer, going on to complain that, despite a call to the school board, "no one has done anything about it."
"What else can I do?" the concerned parent asked.
Abby -- the column is actually authored by Jeanne Phillips, daughter of the column's creator, Pauline Phillips -- responded that she was assuming that the parent had already spoken with the boy's teacher and principal.
If so, the "next step would be to discuss this with a lawyer," Phillips wrote. "The fact that your son was hit so hard he needed medical attention should be all the proof he or she needs to help you deal with this."
Was this the best advice? The plaintive question struck a chord with readers who offered their own suggestions. Dear Abby devoted another column entirely to the reader reaction.
"Jim C." wrote to say that, as a retired New York City police officer, he recommended going to the cops with a complaint. "Montana Mom" advised that a summer of tae kwon do classes after a year of being bullied as a kindergartner helped her son gain "the inner strength to be sure of himself in the face of bullies." The shortest response came from Lou Ann W.: "Please tell 'Worried in Tulsa' to call all of her local TV stations and ask for an interview. That will probably get some action," she wrote.
So, what is the best advice?
Steve Hahn, primary prevention program manager for The Parent Child Center of Tulsa, stressed that parents are both advisors to their children and advocates for their welfare.
In extreme cases, legal action can be warranted, according to Hahn.
But parents should first try to gather details about what might have happened.
"My question for the mother is, 'Was there a discussion with the teacher, with a counselor, with the principal? And to what degree?'" Hahn said.
He noted that the letter could have been from a parent in any of the area school districts. Guidelines may vary, but state law requires all districts to have bullying policies in place.
Union Public Schools did not respond before deadline to a request for comment. Tulsa Public Schools, in a written statement, described how teachers must file a written report that requires "immediate investigation" by an administrator.
Assaults -- even those involving only a menacing gesture or threat -- require notification of the Tulsa Police Department. Consequences can include suspensions as long as the current semester plus the subsequent semester for older youth, though for both older youth and elementary school students, decisions are made "based upon the totality of the circumstances."
The district noted that things aren't always what they seem when it comes to bullying: "Oftentimes, conflicts are the result of two children who don't know how to respond to their feelings, and while it's easy to label one as the 'bully' and the other the 'victim,' sometimes the truth is somewhere in the middle."
Hahn said he understands that parents can get frustrated with school officials. But, overall, bullying is a higher priority for society in general, Hahn said.
About 200 educators and students have attended free screenings of the movie Bully playing at Circle Cinema, 10 S. Lewis Ave., which in May hosted a panel discussion on bullying and, separately, a talk from Kirk Smalley, stepfather of Ty Field-Smalley, who is featured in the film.
The documentary tells the story of the younger Smalley's experience being bullied and his suicide at 11 years old, though the school superintendent told the Stillwater NewsPress that school district officials had looked into bullying complaints and "could not find any indication that bullying was a factor."
The Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice is providing the free tickets, with educators and students still able to catch the movie for free at Circle Cinema.
Bullying "is something that has been part of our culture for maybe forever," said Jim Walker, executive director of Youth Services of Tulsa. But he said that "there's been such improvement to the schools' response to bullying."
His organization offers counseling for parents and youth on topics that include bullying. Appointments can be made by calling 918-582-0061, with centers in Tulsa and also other nearby communities.
"If they can't afford it, it's free," Walker said.
For the parent in the Dear Abby letter, Walker said he would advise that parents try to resolve the issue through the child's school rather than turn to police.
"In my opinion, that sometimes can move it to a whole different level when it often can be worked out just through the school, without legal implications," Walker said.
Officer Leland Ashley, a public information officer with Tulsa police, said parents can report an assault like that one described in the Dear Abby letter.
"It seems like the child was injured and sought medical treatment. I think in that case, you probably do want to make a police report," Ashley said.
Ultimately, however, "that's going to be a person's personal preference," Ashley said.
If a few weeks have passed, that's no reason to not report such an incident, he added. Such a case might end up in juvenile court, though other times, especially if it's an incident without witnesses that took place weeks earlier, "there's not going to be much we can do," Ashley said.
Hahn said that, for parents, "just the satisfaction of getting an adequate response from the school, I think generally can be lacking."
To prevent bullying or at least prepare for it, Hahn offered suggestions for parents. During a meet-the-teacher night, parents can ask questions to learn how a school handles bullying.
"I think we're headed toward the right direction, with prevention and awareness and intervention," said Hahn, who spoke last month at a panel discussion on bullying held at Circle Cinema. "But it's still going to take some steps to get there."
Angela McLaughlin, a program specialist with The Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice, said the group presents workshops with an anti-bullying message to second-graders at Tulsa Public Schools and Union Public Schools, "learning to get along despite your differences, learning not to call people names, learning not to stereotype."
Tulsa Public Schools' new electronic reporting system, begun only in January, allows students, staff and others to anonymously report bullying or other incidents.
The district describes it as "an outgrowth of our anti-bullying efforts," and the system has won the praise of Nancy McDonald, a longtime advocate for youth in Tulsa.
"The next step for any school system, in this case Tulsa Public Schools, is to really look at the training program for teachers, administrators, school employees, on how to respond to this," McDonald said.
For a parent, ultimately her advice is "to have persistence."
If talking with a teacher or a principal doesn't seem to resolve the problem, "then you need to continue to pursue it, at whatever level it takes."
Dear Abby is getting at least one more letter. Tulsa Public Schools, in their statement to Urban Tulsa Weekly, also noted that the district's student services coordinator has written to Dear Abby "to encourage her to reach out to this parent and contact our office immediately."
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