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Students discuss bullying in schools

Nine students from the Pagosa Springs Middle School and High School took seats before the Archuleta School District 50 Joint Board of Education to share their experience, opinions and suggestions on bullying during a Tuesday evening work session.

Fortunately, while the students acknowledged that bullying can be a problem at school (as well as outside of school) and had recommendations for the board to address the issue, most seemed to say that the problem is not as pressing as it is in other districts throughout the state or the nation.

Nonetheless, most of the students said, at the end of the discussion, that bullying remains a problem in the schools and that the district needs to do more in not only addressing the issue, but in punishing the perpetrators.

Ranging from eighth through 12th grades, the students were invited to participate in the forum by Anna Royer, the district’s community prevention coordinator. Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Royer had the students fill out an eight-question survey that asked things like how they defined bullying, where bullying takes place, what kinds of support are available from teachers, parents or school administration, and what can be done to address the problem (either by the students themselves or by teachers and school administration).

Although the students reported more traditional forms of bullying — the physical, verbal and emotional abuse that any generation can identify with — they indicated that modern technology had added another layer to the issue as cell phones and social media have taken a prominent place in the lives of today’s children.

When asked by Director Joanne Irons how many of the students on the panel had a Facebook account, all raised their hands.

In fact, it was immediately after the students introduced themselves to the board, listing their various extracurricular activities and accomplishments, that Director Ken Fox asked the student panel, “Where do you see social media in the bullying part? Is that a big part of it?”

“It’s actually a really big part of it,” replied Savannah Madden, a ninth-grader. “There’s a lot of bullying through Facebook,” adding that text messaging also adds to the problem.

Director Greg Schick asked the students if they felt that the presumption of anonymity or appearance of distance provided some bullies confidence that they would not likely possess in an-up close confrontation.

“Do you think it might be because people aren’t looking you face-to-face and it’s easier to do it when you’re not there?” Schick asked.

Eighth-grader Molly Burkesmith replied that not only did Facebook and texting provide a screen that allowed bullies to act free from direct confrontation, but that kids don’t often recognize that what’s been said could be hurtful to the person receiving the massage.

“They find a lot more courage saying it online instead of to your face,” Burkesmith said. “What they don’t realize is that they’re being mean online instead of saying it to your face because you can’t see their action or know what their emotions are.”

Royer added to the discussion of cyberbullying, saying, “A lot of the bullying takes place both at school and at home and the technology is available wherever the students are, and so it’s not just limited to the school today.”

While cyberbullying has added another dimension to a problem that appears programmed into our genes (evolutionary biologists have shown that social animals will lower stress hormone levels after beating up on subordinate members of the group), the students reported that the more old-fashioned types of bullying remain alive and well, practiced primarily in school hallways and locker rooms, on playgrounds and playing fields — anywhere adult supervision is at a minimum.

In fact, when Fox asked the students what kinds of people were bullying and whether it was the kind of person who lacked sufficient self-worth and sought to bolster their esteem by picking on someone, the students responded that anyone could be a bully.

“I think just about everyone bullies,” said ninth-grader Ryan McInnis. “If you’ve said you’ve never bullied, you’re a liar.”

Adding to that, Madden brought up cliques, the timeworn and tribal association with a particular group that usually views outsiders as inferior or a threat.

“Everybody does bully, at some point, I think it’s not on purpose, but there’s cliques ... and the ones that seem like they have more seniority would definitely pick on the lower class ...since they’re more popular, they think they have more control.”

Several students verified that cliques add to bullying due to the pack mentality those groups seem to foster in their members.

When asked what exactly the students felt defined bullying, most responded in a way that echoed Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it.”

However, almost all the students provided the answer that bullying (versus good-natured chiding) resulted once a line was crossed, when teasing escalated into harm, either emotional or physical.

Twelfth-grader Leslie Baughman said, “It’s more targeted towards your emotions ... because emotional bullying leads to physical bullying.

“I think that bullying is the stuff that you say crosses that line which, I don’t think anybody can really define that line ... it just hits your emotions so that you look worse than the other person.”

When asked what could be done to stop bullying, the students replied that they were often reluctant to intervene due to the fear that they could be dragged into the fray or “the drama” (as one girl put it).

Furthermore, some of the students said that getting parents involved after being bullied was not an option, feeling that parental involvement would potentially make the situation worse.

In fact, the students agreed that the most effective way to address bullying was through teacher intervention and, some suggested, tougher school policies with a zero-tolerance approach to bullying.

While the district provides a talk on bullying during the first day of school, 10th-grader Amber Onello said she felt that, on that day, kids are too distracted.

Several students added that they believe that a bullying talk would be more effective if it was delivered at, “some random time” when, they said, it would more likely capture their attention. On top of that, they added that someone they could relate to, i.e. someone closer to their age, would reach them better than an adult they said they felt was merely lecturing them.

Recently, “Bully,” a documentary, was released (http://thebullyproject.com/) that addresses the positive impact of peer messaging. Unfortunately, the film has had difficulty being distributed to districts due to an ‘R’ rating placed on the film by the MPAA due to language.

The film features interviews with American students who have either witnessed, been victims of, or been perpetrators of bullying.

On Tuesday night, Superintendent Mark DeVoti said that the district has a policy of showing R-rated films on a class-by-class basis, but only after permission slips are sent home and an opt-out clause is provided.

DeVoti would not say if the district would consider acquiring a copy of the film.

However, the students forming Tuesday night’s panel were clear that, while bullying is not epidemic in area schools, it remains a problem; one that they said schools need to do more to confront, in both punitive measures as well as strategically addressing the issues in a way that more kids get the message.

Likewise, the students said that both teachers and administrators need to be more available and responsive when someone comes to report a bullying incident.

“Everyone needs someone to talk to,” said 12th-grader Markus Garbiso. “Sometimes, kids just don’t have that support at home.”

jim@pagosasun.com

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