June 18, 2001
School officials take bullying issue head-on
by Jeanette Knutson
Bullying is a facet of our society. Maybe you've had a boss who bullied employees. These corporate leaders might think of their techniques as "an aggressive management style" ‹ as business school gurus are now trying to palm off the late Billy Martin's dirt-kicking tirades on the baseball diamond ‹ but the "experts" aren't kidding anyone. The workplace is full of managers who are bullies.
Or perhaps you have a colleague who thinks they're funny, but their fun is always at the expense of another person's feeings, always rooted in a disparaging comment. These people aren't comedians. They're bullies.
And bullying is no less prevalent in schools than it is in the workplace. It's a fact of life. But these days schools are taking bullying seriously. The Paduch, Columbine and Santee shoot-outs cemented the connection between bullying and violence and brought the topic to the forefront.
According to a U.S. Department of Education pamphlet entitled "Preventing Bullying," bullying among youth is commonly defined as intentional, repeated hurtful acts, words or other behavior, such as name-calling, threatening and/or shunning committed by one or more children against another. These negative acts are not intentionally provoked by the victims, and for such acts to be defined as bullying, an imbalance in real or perceived power must exist between the bully and the victim.
Principal Vicki Puckett of Woodinville High School, in an effort to assess the awareness and scope of the bullying problem at WHS, encouraged a survey of students be taken.
"We wanted to look at what [was] going on; we needed a starting point," said Puckett.
So students, administrators and a few teachers worked with district personnel to formulate questions for the survey. When asked what kinds of harassment high school students felt, the survey-compilers drew up a list that included religious, sexual, sexual orientation, racial, appearance, disability, social status, grade level and economic, said Assistant Principal Jan Peterson.
Eighty percent of survey-takers, said Peterson, admitted harassment had occurred. Twenty percent had felt some religious harassment, 25 percent sexual harassment, 15 percent sexual-orientation harassment, 15 percent racial harassment, 75 percent felt they were harassed about their appearances, 48 percent about a disability, 75 percent about social status, 60 percent about their economic status, and, surprisingly, seniors said they felt more harassed than did the sophomores.
In the past, students may have ignored harassment or gone along with it.
"This is where our role as educators comes in," said Puckett. "When students lack peer pressure [to signal that what a classmate is doing is wrong or hurtful], we rely on staff and students who are educated [about harassment] to step in."
Senior Brian Bauer said, "Teachers are saying, 'Please don't say that,' and it's beginning to rub off."
Junior Rachel Lawrence said out-going students are starting to say, "Hey, that's not cool," when overhearing harassing remarks. "We're dealing with harassment immediately so that it doesn't happen again," she said. She also noted that the harassment survey was a positive thing. "Students were able to say what they felt anonymously."
And staff and administrators are taking it to heart. Policies are in place to deal with bullies/harassers ‹ the message is one of no tolerance.
Parents are encouraged to let the school know if their child is being harassed. There may be a reluctance on the part of students or parents to step up and talk about it.
"We can only act on what we know," said Puckett.
Assistant Principal Katie Holland said, "Our job is to work behind the scenes, not overlooking, not turning our backs to reports [of bullying or harassment]."
Bauer mentioned motivational speaker Tyler Durman who spoke to the school this year. In his presentation Durman brought up issues of respect for others and for your surroundings, said Bauer. "Some who hadn't really noticed harassment, had their eyes opened up," he said. Durman addressed "people's struggle with fitting in, feeling loved, having a place. He really touched a chord in a lot of people. There was a line of 30 people waiting to talk to him afterward. It was so obvious how [his presentation] affected them. Everyone listened to every word he said."
Associated Student Body members have been painting quotes around the school like "Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless." ‹ Mother Theresa
"And we had a spring cleaning week where departments cleaned up around the school, picking up litter, planting bushes and flowers. We wanted to improve the environment, make it more welcoming, so that students would like being here more," said Lawrence.
She also described a school group called the Friendly Falcons. Each new student is assigned a Friendly Falcon who helps them fit in, make friends faster.
FADE, Falcons Against Discrimination Everywhere, work hard with administrators and teachers to plan assemblies and Days of Respect training.
School staff undergo sensitivity training as well. And parents are informed through PTSA programs about diversity/bullying issues. They are encouraged to participate.
"Parents' input is very helpful. Our partnership with parents and the community is positive and the success of our school depends on it," said Puckett.
"We are trying to be proactive," said Holland. "We have the tools in place. What we're trying to do is prepare students to go from this safe, homogeneous place to the real world, to California, New York, [wherever]. We're trying to sharpen coping skills."
"You have to bear in mind that we cycle in a new 400-plus kids every year," said Puckett, "kids with different experiences. So we have to keep educating. But our staff is working on it, we have [diversity awareness] as a schoolwide goal, our standards are consistent and developmentally appropriate [for the age-level we teach]."
School administrators are aware they became vulnerable when they decided to address the bullying issue. The are aware, too, that bullying is a family, a school and a community issue; and that in order for progress to be made, the topic needs to be addressed on all three fronts.