Trying to stop a problem as old as playgrounds

Recess hasn't been much fun for one of the first-graders in Mrs. Giles's class.

Let's call him George. A thin, dark-haired boy, he's being picked on by a second-grader. He's been chased, kicked, and forced to cling like a sparrow to the top of a jungle gym while his tormentor and buddies wait below.

There have been bullies at least as long as there have been swing sets. But George's school - his state, in fact - is determined it won't be raising another generation of them.

"There are two places that kids should always feel safe: home and school," says Walter Huston, director of Barrows Elementary School's bully-prevention program.

Based on that assumption, Massachusetts has set aside $1 million in federal funds to bully-proof its schools. Still in its pilot phase, the program will expand to at least 16 schools next year, a source in state government says. And it comes at a time when a growing number of states across the United States are looking hard at ways to make their students safer.

New Hampshire has an antibullying law that took effect Jan. 1. Washington State's Senate voted earlier this month to have its districts adopt antibullying and harassment policies, and Colorado is considering similar legislation. In addition, the US Department of Justice has funded pilot programs in five states.

The reasons states cite for their fervor in tackling the bullying culture vary, but there is one overriding image: that of a teen with a gun. In three-quarters of recent school shootings, the gunmen said they were taunted or picked on, according to the US Secret Service.

"There have been a couple of things that have happened to cause a dramatic increase" in the number of programs, says Sandra Crosson, a school psychologist for the Dover School District in New Hampshire. "Every time there's an act of school violence, there's going to be an increase in interest.... But this is nothing new. It's school-violence prevention, and it's being remarketed as bully-proofing."

A nurturing approach

Barrows Elementary, with its sunny halls and 350 students, is hardly the sort of place one would expect violence to erupt. Taped to the peach-tile and foam-green cinder-block walls are homemade signs: "Don't bully, be soft and woolly," "Be fair, don't be a bully bear," and "Please don't tease."

When the program began last month, the Student Council put on a play. The advisory committee meets over fruit and cookies to discuss ways to involve the town and other elementary schools.

But its administrators say bullying is a problem, nonetheless. "We don't have the beating-up part, although that happens occasionally," says Mr. Huston. "Our biggest problem is exclusion" - children being isolated or informed that they aren't "good enough" to play.

Mary McDonald, kindergarten teacher and member of the antibullying committee, has confronted the phenomenon in her classroom, where a girl with special needs has been teased by some of the boys. When she called the parents of one boy, she says their immediate reaction was, "Oh please, tell me that he was the one who was bullied."

One in 7 elementary- and middle-school students is either a bully or a victim, according to a study by the National Association of School Psychologists. And a study of 8- to 15-year-olds released last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more teens put bullying at the top of their list of "big problems" than any other challenge.

The Massachusetts program, as well as those funded by the Justice Department, is based on the work of Norwegian researcher Daniel Olweus. It relies heavily on getting bystanders, who make up the majority of kids, to stand up for those being bullied.

"If we don't involve the bystanders, their sense of empathy is reduced," and they're more likely to join in the taunting, says Nancy Mullin-Rindler, co-author of the curriculum being used in Massachusetts schools. All teachers and staff are expected to step in if they see a child being bullied. One of the challenges in bullying prevention, Ms. Mullin-Rindler and others say, is getting rid of the notion that being bullied builds character or is like braces or homework - not fun, maybe, but an inevitable part of growing up.

Programs that take this communitywide approach "are proven to reduce bullying behavior by 60 percent," says Mullin-Rindler. "It does have an impact."

But some question whether construction-paper signs and role-playing exercises are enough to prevent another incident with a semiautomatic.

"Bullying prevention programs are one component of building safe and effective schools. And alone, they will not do it," says Kevin Dwyer, special adviser to the National Mental Health Association in Virginia.

However, he adds, implementing a program like the one at Barrows is "at least a step in the right direction."

Less-than-effective methods

But he and others stress that it's not enough to just have one school assembly and call it bully-proofing, or rely on unproven methods such as peer mediation.

"There is no evidence peer mediation works," says Mr. Dwyer flatly, adding that emotional problems are far too complicated for children to solve on their own. "We rely on cheap solutions to complex problems and end up spending the money later on - in prisons and hospitals."

At the Barrows School, classes meet weekly to provide students with a forum to report on any problems, and staff hold regular meetings to see how the program is going. There's no zero-tolerance at Barrows: The first time they're written up for a bullying incident, they get a timeout; the second time, the principal calls their parents; and the third, they get a three-day suspension.

It's not like "OK, you called a kid a jerk. You're out of here for three days," says Huston. With the youngest children, discipline is left to the teacher's discretion.

It's at one of the class meetings that George, primed by a book that teacher Cathy Giles had read about a little girl who was teased because of her name, confided the troubles he was having with the older boy. Two classmates, Ben and David, offered to have him come and play with them next time. Giles sends the class off to do some written work so she can talk to George privately. He decides that he doesn't want any steps taken now, but if he's ever feeling bullied, he'll come to her right away.

"You know you can depend on us," she said, before her class returns to their work.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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