By Shari Phiel
Students have been bullying and harassing their classmates since students first walked through the school room doors. Not that long ago, it would have been not only acceptable but even common practice, for parents, teachers and even school officials to dismiss incidents of bullying or harassment as typical childhood behavior, as kids being kids.
Targets of bullying were often told they just needed to “toughen up” or to stand up for themselves. Add to this the school bully revenge fantasy made legendary in 1980s films like “My Bodyguard” and “Three O’Clock High.” But the reality is that sexual harassment and bullying can negatively affect grades, social development and lead to depression, feelings of low self-worth and anxiety.
The rise of in-school violence and the tragic shootings at Columbine High School, along with schools in Oregon, Virginia, Florida, Oklahoma and others have brought the issues surrounding school bullying to the forefront. Nearly every state now has laws against sexual harassment on the books and 32 states have anti-bullying laws as well, Colorado being just one of them.
Last year, the Colorado Trust completed a three-year study on bullying at 54 schools across the state with surprising results. The study showed that the majority of students in grades fifth through 12th had experienced some form of bullying and in turn, had then bullied others. “Boys were 75 percent more likely to use physical bullying,” while girls were more likely to use verbal attacks,” noted the study.
The study also showed “that bullying declined when adults and students were willing to intervene, treat each other fairly and show they care.” Other recent studies have shown that while incidents of sexual harassment are less frequent, the effects are far more damaging. The psychological fall-out for the victim can linger far longer and can lead to problems forming healthy relationships as they grow toward adulthood.
Distinguishing between typical school behavior like playful teasing or flirting and more serious incidents of bullying or sexual harassment is fairly straightforward. Sexual harassment and bullying both involve unwanted behaviors and often rely on differing power bases – stronger male over weaker female, senior against a freshman, popular student over unpopular student.
There are a wide range of types of bullying and harassment incidents. The ages of students involved, grade level, maturity, nature of the incident and other factors all affect how the incidents are handled.
Despite these disparities, how reports of harassment or bullying are handled at various schools in Berthoud remains fairly similar. At the elementary school level, children are just beginning to develop social interaction skills. Typical behaviors can include teasing, pinching, pulling hair and playground disputes over equipment or friends.
But if those behaviors become hurtful, children should feel safe in going to a teacher, counselor or other school official. And the sooner the incident is reported the better. “It should be reported at school immediately,” says Ivy Stockwell Principal Rhonda Richer. Staff have a better chance of addressing and correcting unwanted behaviors in younger students if the issue is addressed immediately.
“The more quickly those instances are reported, the better chance we have of finding out what really happened, getting to the truth and then taking care of it,” added Richer.
Sometimes though, children are more comfortable discussing these kinds of problems at home with their parent or guardian. In these cases, the parent or guardian should then contact the school directly and discuss it with either the teacher or the school principal.
Richer notes, “Our primary goal is to get it stopped immediately.” How that occurs depends on the type and severity of the incident(s) along with the students’ ages. Sometimes that can mean a firm conversation with a very young child in the case of a less severe occurrence. If the student is older and has had previous issues they may face in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension or worse.
At Ivy Stockwell, like other Berthoud schools, reported incidents are first investigated by talking with the students involved, interviewing other students who may have witnessed the event as well as talking with teachers. The students’ parents are then contacted by Principal Richer, or the teacher in the case of minor incidents, to discuss the issue. “We want to sort it out first,” stated Richer.
An important part in addressing the problem of school bullying and sexual harassment is education. At Ivy Stockwell, school counselors work with the students to help define what is considered harassment, standing up to peer pressure, and respecting others.
At Turner Middle School, school counselors also play a large role in educating students about appropriate behavior. TMS Principal Bill Siebers said school counselors have put a bully-proofing program into place and go into the classroom to educate the student. Bully proofing programs typically focus on recognizing the signs and symptoms of bully behavior, discuss ways to intervene and how to appropriately resolve conflicts.
Once students reach the high school level, the types and severity, along with the consequences, can be much more severe. So it comes as no surprise that educating students at the high school level in Berthoud takes a much higher priority.
At Berthoud High School, all freshman students are required to take a health education class in either the fall or spring semester. Part the health class curriculum includes information and discussions about bullying and sexual harassment.
Students are also given a 16-page pamphlet on teens and sexual harassment that will help them identify what is harassment, understand the differences between flirting, kidding around and harassment, the kinds of sexual harassment and the consequences of their behavior.
BHS has a set of guidelines in place to help them handle reported incidents. “What’s the situation, is it a first offense, a second offense? There are standard procedures, if you will, that are followed,” said BHS Principal Leonard Sherman.
For this principal, any behavior that makes another student uncomfortable or feel unsafe can be considered as harassment (or bullying) and is not to be tolerated. Behaviors once deemed acceptable, such as hazing, are no longer okay. Sherman notes this kind of behavior “just doesn’t get it anymore.”
If your child is being bullied or harassed, or if you know of a child in this situation, there are resources available in Larimer County and online (see sidebar) in addition to resources available at each school and at the Thompson School District.