Last year, two boys at Riverview Elementary School in Norco repeatedly shoved and hit then-sixth-grader Jimmy Linton. They cursed at him and taunted him daily about his weight.
“They were mean to everybody, but I was really their target,” Jimmy said.
The bullies frequently pulled his chair out from under him and deleted his work from his computer in class, he said. His grades slipped. He hated going to school.
Schools have been trying to discourage bullying — in classroom lessons, in sessions with counselors and in school assemblies — by raising awareness and teaching students to be kind, to believe in themselves and to recognize and report bullying.
Schools also are disciplining bullies — about 2,300 students were expelled, suspended or faced some other punishment at public schools in 2011-12 in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Wayne Sakamoto, safe school director for Murrieta Valley Unified School District, said bullying prevention programs are effective in the long run and reduce the frequency and severity. He sees former bullies learn to stop their mean behavior.
“But we know some kids will bully,” he said.
Jimmy, now 13, said he did not want to report the boys who harassed him, partly because he was afraid they would find out.
“If I told on them, they would get mad at me,” he said. “After they got in trouble, they would come after me.”
His tormentors were expelled before they completed sixth grade. But they were scheduled to return in late October and, like Jimmy, would be attending seventh grade at Norco Intermediate School.
Regina Linton, Jimmy’s mother, didn’t wait to see if the boys’ behavior had improved. She enrolled him in a different district, at the Riverside school where she teaches.
Even before her son was harassed, Regina Linton made bullying prevention a priority. She said she talks to her students every month about bullying. She and all the teachers at the school routinely stand in their doorways between classes to prevent bullying or fighting in the hallways.
Linton’s approach — regular conversations and constant monitoring — is the most effective way to prevent bullying, school safety experts say.
The need to discourage bullying has escalated amid tragic events. Children have killed themselves after being bullied on the Internet. The shooters at Sandy Hook last year and Columbine in 1999 had been targets of bullying.
Those are extreme examples, Sakamoto said.
Students who have been targets of bullying are more likely to suffer health consequences such as headaches, abdominal pain, sleep problems and depression.
And research has found that school bullies are more likely to be involved in felony crimes as adults, he said.
IS IT WORKING?
Bullying prevention messages seem to be reducing the frequency and severity of incidents, Inland officials say, although statistics are sketchy. California reported bullying instances as a separate category of offenses for suspensions and expulsions in 2011-12 but not for earlier years. The 2012-13 statistics have not been released yet.
Erin Vanderwood, student services coordinator in Riverside Unified School District, said such efforts raise awareness and increase reporting of both severe bullying and lesser incidents that don’t meet the legal definitions of bullying. She said reporting increases after an assembly or other prevention programs.
California’s Education Code requires bullying to be “severe or pervasive” before the student responsible can be suspended or expelled. Schools can take other disciplinary steps regardless of whether the bullying meets the legal definition.
Discipline rates for bullying start dropping by the time students reach high school, educators say.
Corona-Norco Unified School District spokeswoman Evita Tapia-Gonzalez said suspensions for bullying peak in intermediate school — seventh and eighth grades. Corona-Norco had 16 suspensions for bullying at its intermediate schools last year, compared to 14 for upper elementary school grades and 12 at the four-year high schools.
Vanderwood, as part of her job, arranges anti-bullying assemblies and guest speakers.
Based on notes she gets from parents and students, those assemblies are working, said Lizzie Sider, a 15-year-old country singer from south Florida who has taken her anti-bullying message to 80 schools in California. One of her recent stops was Woodcrest Elementary School in Riverside.
Students greeted Sider with cheers and requests for autographs. They sang along with her songs, including a chorus “Why you gotta be so mean?”
Sider has first-hand experience to draw from when she talks to students.
She used to come home from elementary school crying almost every day, she said. Other girls excluded her from their games and laughed at her for singing to herself, she said. Most Woodcrest students raised their hands when Sider asked if they had ever been bullied.
Sider said lots of famous people — singer Taylor Swift, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, actress Selena Gomez, basketball star Michael Jordan and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps — were bullied.
“Not only did they overcome it, they never stopped believing in themselves,” Sider told the students.
The message in some of her songs was about believing in themselves — even when others put them down.
Sider encouraged the students help classmates who they see being bullied, just as they would help a little brother or sister.
After the assembly, the Woodcrest students said they appreciated Sider’s message.
“I think it’s cool, because you can show the world who you really are,” fifth-grader Jessica Burton said.
Many students need to be taught communication and social skills so they won’t resort to bullying to deal with negative emotions.
Some students who bully stop if counseled or if they’re suspended once.
Those who persist usually have underlying issues, such as mental health problems or problems at home, Sakamoto said. Usually those students already have been suspended more than once, and such discipline is no longer a deterrent. Repeat visits to a school counselor may be scheduled, and a behavior contract may be created involving parents.
“It really starts with counseling,” Tapia-Gonzalez said.
She said persistent bullies may need other community resources, such as the Riverside County Mental Health Department or law enforcement, to work with the family.
Sakamoto said it’s important to try to involve families in changing a student’s behavior. He said he knows of incidents in which bullies’ parents have driven them to fight other kids.
He said he often gets calls from parents of children who have been bullied complaining the school isn’t doing anything to intervene.
Schools are bound by privacy laws to protect the records of bullies and victims. Because of that, “parents are not aware of what schools are doing,” Sakamoto said. They can’t be told about other students’ behavior contracts, counseling referrals or other measures.
However, he said, all schools are legally required to have a safety plan, which is reviewed annually. The latest review is included in the School Accountability Report Card, Sakamoto said. That report is usually on the school’s website.
Vanderwood said most schools now have ways bullying can be reported anonymously, whether online or in a drop box.
Schools usually try to accommodate parents’ requests for transfers from another district — whatever the reason — as long as the school where they want their child enrolled has space. Transferring within the district usually only happens within a transfer window. Principals must document that they have tried all possible interventions, such as reassigning a bully or target to a different class, before transfers within a district are considered for the next school year.
Jimmy Linton said he’s much happier at Loma Vista Middle School, and his mother said his grades are improving.
“I am not bullied at all,” Jimmy said. “It’s nice to go to school and feel like I’m safe.”
California Education Code defines bullying as severe or pervasive acts that harm another student physically or mentally and may include online bullying as well as hitting, shoving and name-calling.
Several schools have innovative programs in which student leaders deter bullying. Examples include:
POLY HIGH in Riverside has a link on the school’s Internet home page to report bullying anonymously.
KING HIGH in Riverside has an anti-bullying club called HERO, which stands for Helping, Encouraging and Respecting Others. Organizers, who had been bullied, thought they would start a small club to support each other. Instead, the club quickly grew to 150 students, including victims, bullies and students who just want to help.
SANTIAGO HIGH student government puts on a weeklong “What If” program encouraging students to consider “What if you made a new friend outside your clique?” or “What if there was no racism?”
ALL FOURTH-GRADERS in Corona-Norco attend an annual World Kindness Conference. Teachers talk about it with students throughout the year to deter bullying and teach social skills.
WHAT TO DO?
STUDENTS who witness bullying shouldn’t laugh at the target and give the bully the idea that the behavior is cool. Bullies get their power from the reaction of both their targets and bystanders. If witnesses don’t feel safe standing up for the target and telling the bully to stop, they should report the behavior to an adult and at least befriend the target later, maybe with a friendly pat on the back.
PARENTS should report incidents first to their child’s teacher. If the teacher can’t or won’t resolve the problem, they should go to the principal or assistant principal and then to the district office if the problem continues. Elected school board trustees can be contacted as a last resort.
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