By Marsha Sutton
In an attempt to bring more focus on the chronic problem of bullying in schools, local California Assembly member Ben Hueso introduced a resolution declaring March to be School Bullying Prevention Awareness Month. The resolution, which was heard in Sacramento March 25, passed.
A related bill sponsored by Hueso, AB 630, would establish programs to train teachers and educators to spot bullying and provide techniques for prevention and intervention.
According to the resolution, bullying in California causes 160,000 students to miss school every day due to “fear of attack or intimidation by their peers.” It states that “both bullies and their victims are more likely to drop out of school and engage in unlawful activity.” School violence and suicides have also, famously, been connected to bullying.
An article in the Aug. 26, 2010 issue of this newspaper reported on bullying at Solana Santa Fe School in Fairbanks Ranch. The bullying, which was primarily confined to a group of fourth-grade girls, triggered at least one parent to pull her child out of SSF and prompted the Solana Beach School District to take a deeper look at the problem.
As a result, last fall the school implemented the “Second Step” program which includes lesson plans for each particular grade level. Teachers and administrators have been trained, and they say the program has helped raise awareness and given educators strategies to reduce bullying behaviors.
Principal Julie Norby, in a Feb. 24, 2011 article in this newspaper, said a survey taken at the beginning of this school year indicated that 56 percent of students reported being bullied occasionally, 20 percent once or twice a week, and 12 percent almost every day. Eighty percent of the bullying was name-calling or teasing, she said. Norby plans to conduct another survey at the end of the year to evaluate the effectiveness of the Second Step program.
Solana Santa Fe, serving students in kindergarten through sixth grade, also released an anti-bullying policy this year that outlines consequences for bullying behavior and asks students to sign a pledge to refuse to bully or let others bully, and to report bullying when witnessed.
Skyline School in Solana Beach and Solana Pacific in Carmel Valley also have similar policies for students to sign. Skyline serves fourth, fifth and sixth grades, and Solana Pacific serves fifth and sixth grades only.
SBSD counselor Mary Marun attended a March 15 workshop on bullying, sponsored by the San Diego County Office of Education and the Chula Vista Police Department. SDCOE said the workshop filled early with a maximum of 70 participants, so another session will be held May 16.
The half-day workshop, called “Best Practices in Bullying Prevention,” was led by SDCOE’s Project Specialist for Student Support Services, Mara Madrigal-Weiss, who said old assumptions about bullying are still being used but are ineffective. These include tactics like peer mediation, conflict resolution, posters declaring a bully-free zone, and bringing the bully and victim together to “work it out.”
Madrigal-Weiss, who claims bullying is happening in every district and every campus, collaborated with Chula Vista Police Dept. Public Safety Analyst Melanie Culuko to explain national trends in bullying and successful research-based tactics to reduce and prevent it.
Marun works at Solana Vista School which serves students in kindergarten through third grade. She said the workshop gave her new insights into the problem, including a new focus on the importance of the bystander who she said can be a big help in stopping bullying.
“I was surprised at how much emphasis they put now on the bystander,” Marun said. “They encourage that you talk to the bystanders because they’re your eyes and ears out there.”
She said it’s difficult to see everything that happens on the playground, where most of the face-to-face bullying takes place, so adults need to encourage kids not to tolerate bullying and to come forward when they witness it. It’s important she said, to reach out to the bystanders more and let them know it’s not tattling to report bullying behavior.
“Let them know they can trust you to handle it,” she said.
Marun said a large part of the workshop discussed how bullying has changed over the years. “A lot of times before, kids were just left to work things out on their own, and now we’re feeling that kids get pushed to the side and need to be tended to by adults,” she said.
The types of destructive bullying have changed as well, and have escalated to include cyber-bullying, which is not face-to-face.
“They talked about the Internet because it’s so easily accessible and easy to spread things,” she said. Girls, she said, may start rumors in school, “and all of a sudden it’s all over the Internet.”
But the kind of traditional bullying that many adults remember, where kids have fist fights or shake down other kids for lunch money, still occurs with older children, said Marun. “Kids are still pressured and pushed around,” she said.
Even in the younger grades, Marun said mean-spirited activity occurs all too frequently, such as kids having to eat lunch alone, getting bumped into or pushed down, or having toys yanked from their hands and thrown aside.
Because most of the bullying in the younger grades occurs on the playground, at recess or at lunch, the aides and supervisors play an important role and are being trained to watch for suspicious activity.
“We pay attention to the loners… and if someone’s just wandering around by themselves,” Marun said. “It’s hard sometimes to pick out what’s going on in a group, but we try to make sure that everyone is included.”
At Marun’s K-3 school, she doesn’t see the hard-line bullying behavior or any cyber-bullying because the kids are too young, she said, but she does see what she called pre-bullying.
“I don’t really see cases where kids are coming to me scared,” she said. “They’re more upset because they’re being excluded.”
Marun said she sees some mild physical aggression in kindergarten, mostly from boys. “But in second and third grade it’s almost exclusively the girls, gossipy kind of stuff,” she said.
At Solana Vista, the first time there is an offense, students get a warning. “At this age, if you just point out the whole dynamics … and they understand what’s going on, I rarely have repeated cases,” said Marun. “But if there’s a pattern, by the second time we’re usually calling parents.”
The workshop discussed how bullying becomes more sophisticated as kids move into upper grades, particularly the middle school years, Marun said. “That’s when kids start getting a little more savvy for social relationships and dynamics, so they start understanding a little more the power that they might have over other people,” she said.
Bullies, if left alone, grow into adult bullies and often end up in prison, “so it’s very important to intervene,” she said, with focus on the bully, the bully’s victims and observers.
Marun plans to share what she learned at the SDCOE workshop with other counselors and educators at the other five Solana Beach schools.
“The prevention part is the big key,” she said, noting that her school’s kindness program teaches kids to consider the other person’s side in disputes and to respect other children’s needs.
Bullying, all educators agree, has become a very serious problem for schools, because it interferes with learning if kids don’t want to attend school or don’t feel safe. Some video from the SDCOE workshop showed children sitting at their desks in class, “stressing about going out to lunch and being bullied,” Marun said. “Their stomachs would just churn before they’d go to recess because they’d be all worried. That certainly would interfere with your paying attention in class.”
Marun said educators are becoming more and more alarmed. “I think they’re pretty much on top of it and paying a lot of attention to it now, whereas they didn’t before,” she said.