The ABCs of school bullying
“Each of us deserves the freedom to pursue our own version of happiness. No one deserves to be bullied.” – Barack Obama
During those growing up years, when a kid being bullied would tell his or her parents about it, typical responses were “just ignore them,” “avoid them,” “they’re just teasing you” and “tell your teacher.” If the bully was hitting you or beating you up, a parent’s response was usually “hit them back or they’ll never stop.”
Bullying has long been perceived as a part of growing up, a cruel rite of passage some kids experienced. Unlike kids today, we didn’t have to deal with cyberbullying as well. The Internet, cell phones, and personal computers were likely inventions we saw on episodes of “The 21st Century” hosted by Walter Cronkite (1967-1970).
The National Library of Medicine defines bullying as “the systematic abuse of power and aggressive behavior, or intentional harm-doing by peers that is carried out repeatedly and involves an imbalance of power. Being bullied is still often wrongly considered as a ‘normal rite of passage.’”
Maine Department of Education’s “An Act to Prohibit Bullying and Cyberbullying in Maine Schools Model Policy” (https://tinyurl.com/yckbaz8n) is supposed to be adhered to in Maine schools. In addition to bullying and cyberbullying, prohibited behaviors include harassment, sexual harassment, retaliation against someone reporting bullying behaviors, and making knowingly false accusations of the behavior. Any student in grades K-12 engaging in these is subject to “appropriate disciplinary actions.” Read the full policy at https://sites.google.com/aos98schools.org/aos98-schools-policies/no-boothbayboothbay-harbor/section-j/jick
According to Maine law, bullying includes, but is not limited to, written, spoken, physical acts or gestures; harming a student or his/her property; placing a student in reasonable fear of physical harm, or interfering with another student’s academic performance or ability to participate in or benefit from services, activities and privileges provided by the school; bullying can be based on a student’s actual or perceived race, color, national origin, ancestry, religion; physical or mental disability, gender, sexual orientation, or any other distinguishing characteristic; or is on a student’s association with a person with one or more of these actual or perceived characteristics.
Shawna Kurr is in her fifth year as principal of Boothbay Region Elementary School (pre-K through grade 8). Kurr said there have been “less than a handful of actual bullying cases” since the 2019/2020 school year “as defined by law.” Citing confidentiality, Kurr was unable to discuss any details about those cases.
“There is a clear difference between the way the general community uses the word ‘bullying,’ which usually means anything unkind that has happened, and the actual definition by law, that we are to uphold by policy,” Kurr explained. “Either way, bullying or unkind behavior is all addressed in similar ways.”
Actions constituting bullying, under Maine law, include, but are not limited to, repeated or pervasive taunting, name-calling, belittling, mocking, put-downs, or demeaning humor; behavior that could harm someone by damaging or manipulating their relationships with others such as gossip, spreading rumors, and social exclusion; non-verbal threats and/or intimidation including the use of aggressive, menacing, or disrespectful gestures; threats of harm to a student, to their possessions; or to other people, verbally or in writing; demands for money, loans or donations; blocking their access to school properties or facilities; stealing, hiding, or damaging books, backpacks and other personal possessions; stalking; and physically injuring another student.
Those who engage in cyberbullying, bully using technology (computers, cell phones, personal digital assistants). Examples include posting slurs or rumors that are defamatory, inaccurate, disparaging, violent, abusive, profane, or sexually-oriented material about a student on a website, app, on social media (Facebook, Tik-tok, etc.), or any other electronic platform; posting misleading or fake photographs or digital videos of a student on websites; creating fake websites or social networking profiles pretending to be the targeted student; impersonating another student using their electronic device(s) or accounts to send email, texts, instant messages (IM), phone calls, messages on a social media website; leaving cruel and/or threatening voicemail messages, or using a camera phone or digital video camera to take, and/or send, embarrassing or “sexting” photographs of other students.
Retaliation is defined as an act or gesture against a student who reports an act of bullying; as well as knowingly reporting a false act of bullying. Substantiated bullying results from an investigation by the school personnel using the Responding Form (https://tinyurl.com/58hr3ftc) demonstrating evidence of bullying or cyberbullying, as defined in policy. Students proved to be bullying another student serve in-school or home suspensions.
Kurr said bullying situations are addressed based on the needs of each child in a case. For example, a few ways the school addresses the needs of a bullied student include moving them to another classroom and regular guidance check-ins. Students suspended for bullying serve that suspension in school, not at home. Kurr noted that throughout her 19 years as a building administrator she never expelled a student “for any reason.”
“We find that keeping a child at school, and providing additional education and resources, is one of the most effective outcomes for students,” added Kurr.
Further, at BRES, the SEL (Social Emotional Learning) curriculum is used in conjunction with health and guidance. SEL curriculum encourages social awareness, problem solving, and critical thinking through which students can gain understanding of themselves and others.
“And let’s not exclude parents here,” Kurr said. “It truly takes a village. One of the very best ways to combat bullying is to create a culture of belonging for all students in the community – in and out of school.”
Stephanie Field is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and program manager of Behavioral Health Integration overseeing the management of clinicians and social workers, including school health centers for LincolnHealth. In practice for 26 years, she has worked with families trying to cope with bullying for both the victim and bully.
“The most effective approach for parents is to have a calm, open stance,” said Field. “Encourage child(ren) to come to them, not to fear ... All parents have strong emotions about their child(ren), but it is important for the child to be heard, for his fear to be validated. I do not recommend telling the child to ‘bully them back,’ to match violence with violence.”
Field said it can be hard for parents to stay in control of their own emotions; they may have been bullied when they were growing up, too, but it is important for the child(ren) to do so. “Parents must stay in control, be very much present, and let their child know he or she can come to them and tell them what’s wrong. Be open to whatever their child needs for them to come forward. Listen. And validate their child’s experience by thanking them for sharing what’s been happening at school. And then go to the school administrators.
“The most effective means (of dealing with bullying) is getting the school responsible involved so the parents and child don’t feel alone, that they have allies,” said Field. “Parents can get support through the school health centers. Unfortunately bullies will target kids who are ‘different’ and certain parts of our population get targeted – kids that look or act different; we know the LGBTQ students can be targets … not only are they being bullied, but they may feel different to begin with. We can help them develop strategies and manage their own emotions connected to this.”
It can get frustrating for the child when they feel they are not being heard: they go to the administration and tell them they are being bullied, but the bullying continues – and the student gives up.
Field suggested students who witness bullying, and want to help, particularly at the elementary school level, have adults who are in responsible roles get involved. If it happens on the playground, get the teacher on duty to come over. “It helps the child to feel safe from a bully knowing they have allies in the adults.”
At Boothbay Region High School, students are encouraged to be “upstanders,” someone who speaks out, or acts in support of an individual (or cause), particularly someone intervening on behalf of someone being bullied or attacked.
“We are promoting the power of peer relationships, being an upstander, making positive connections,” said BRHS Principal Dr. Tricia Campbell. “This is how we hope to reduce negative behaviors and continue to improve and strengthen our school culture. The hope is that these efforts will prove to be a preventive intervention. These actions provide the adults with the opportunity to celebrate student successes that build an infectious confidence.”
The CDC website’s bullying section notes the positive impact an upstander can have: When an upstander acts during a bullying situation, the person being bullied feels their peers are supporting and defending them, and it may help reduce bullying-related anxiety and depression.
Bullying cases at the high school are initially reported to Dean of Students Allan Crocker. “Obviously each report varies in terms of severity and response if it actually qualifies as bullying behavior,” he said. “Whenever there is a report of bullying, interviews are conducted with all students involved as well as any potential witnesses to the bullying behavior. If it is determined that bullying did in fact happen, the proper paperwork is filled out, consequences are assigned, and parents are notified. I have issued several suspensions for bullying in the past.”
The school’s investigative paperwork includes names of students, relationship, if any, between them; names of potential witnesses to the bullying and information from them, location(s) where it took place and times; whether it is the report of a first time occurrence or the same or similar that occurred previously; was technology used; individual interviews with complainant and alleged bully/bullies; additional evidence of bullying (video, photos, email, letters, etc.); nature of the harm inflicted: physical harm and/or damage to property; the student’s reasonable fear of physical harm or damage to property; infringement of the student’s rights at school; citing the motivation for the bullying (national origin, ancestry, ethnicity), religion, physical, mental, emotional or learning disability; age, gender/gender identity/expression; sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, family status, physical appearance, weight, or other distinguishing personal characteristics. A summary of the investigation/explanation of findings is documented. Recommendations for disciplinary action (including alternative discipline, support for the targeted student, other intervention/referral; if a recommendation of reporting to law enforcement is needed (potential criminal violation and/or potential civil rights violation). The report is given to the principal of BRES or BRHS and the information is discussed.
Alternative Organizational Structure (AOS) 98 consequences for bullying and/or cyberbullying include “disciplinary action which may include suspension, expulsion, or a series of graduated consequences including alternative discipline or other behavioral interventions. The Board retains the right to impose disciplinary consequences for bullying and other conduct that occurs at any time or place that substantially disrupts the instructional program, operations of the schools or welfare of students. Any student violating this policy may also be subject to civil or criminal penalties.”
BRHS Guidance Director Leeanne Burnham helps students – both the bullied and bullies – process events – and to develop coping skills, strategies and conflict resolution skills in and out of the classroom.
“A student who has been bullied or is on the receiving end of unkind behavior needs support in navigating that situation, and recognizing that unkind words or actions do not define them, providing access to resources that support their mental and emotional well-being, etc.,” Burnham said. “A student who has demonstrated unkind and/or bullying behavior also needs support to develop appropriate social skills, problem solving and conflict resolution skills, communication skills, etc. and I can help to facilitate that and/or direct the student and family to helpful resources.”
Field shared reasons children become bullies: Some may have been bullied in the past, or are bullied at home; there has been disruption at home due to domestic violence witnessed and/or experienced by the child; alcohol or drug abuse, or emotional abuse.
“There are long-term effects, sometimes lifelong, from bullying as well as children who are bullied,” said Field. “Physically, emotionally, and mentally. Young people who bully also need support to learn why they are hurting other people and how to cope with a situation at home.”
Field referred to the ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences), potential events in childhood such as domestic violence, neglect, mental illness, bullying and/or other traumatic experiences that can change brain development and how that child responds to stress sometimes straight through to adulthood.
According to the CDC website, “about six in 10 adults surveyed reported experiencing at least one ACE before age 18, and nearly one in six of them reported experiencing four or more different types of ACEs.” The more ACES a child has experienced growing up, the harder it is to overcome the impact of those events.
“ACEs have many immediate and long-term consequences. ACEs can have immediate impacts on child and adolescent health, as well as put individuals at risk for chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance use problems well into adulthood. For example, there is evidence that ACEs are related to poor mental health and suicidal behaviors in adolescence, as well as putting people at risk for heart disease and depression later in life. ACEs can also negatively impact education and job opportunities.” - CDC website
Bullying is unacceptable behavior. Talk about it with your kids. Help them understand what bullying behavior is. Let them know they can come to you if they know someone who is being bullied, and if they are. Make sure your kids know how and where to get help. And, most importantly, be the role model your kids need by demonstrating respect, not judgement, and kindness toward others.
“Don’t you ever let a soul in the world tell you that you can’t be exactly who you are.” – Lady Gaga