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Schools still working to rein in bullies

By Marjorie CoeymanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 4, 2001

For too many children, bullying and taunting - or simply plain alienation - are a sadly regular fact of school life. But now a state that can claim a leading interest in the issue is addressing it at a whole new level.

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By the end of this year, every school district in Colorado must have a program in place to reduce bullying. It's part of a broad initiative in a state that is understandably more sensitive than most to the problem. After all, Colorado is home to Littleton's Columbine High School, where bullying is believed to have been a factor in the 1999 rampage by two students that resulted in 15 deaths.

In at least nine school shootings in recent years, bullying was determined to have played a role. Just last week, students were charged with plotting a Columbine-like massacre at New Bedford High School in Massachusetts. Police reports said they may have been motivated by anger toward "preppies," "jocks," and "thugs," a word the teens apparently used to refer to black and Hispanic students.

The problem has existed at least as long as there have been playgrounds. It's often been dismissed as an inevitable rite of passage.

But after Columbine, school counselors and mental health experts were quick to step forward and testify to the social and academic damage done when adults fail to protect children from the abuse of peers.

As a result, a number of states, including Kentucky, Florida, Massachusetts, and California, have launched antibullying initiatives, and many individual school districts have adopted programs as well. At the Cherry Creek, Colo., school district - considered by some to have developed one of the best antibullying programs, a number of years before Columbine - requests for training spiked sharply after that event.

But opinions are mixed as to whether bullying has actually declined as a result of that flurry of activity.

"We have made progress in recognizing that bullying is a national scourge, that 'boys will be boys' is no longer an acceptable response, that bullying is a slippery slope that can lead to physical harm," says William Pollack, assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at the Harvard University School of Medicine in Cambridge, Mass.

But, he and others say, while the school shootings may have served as a dramatic wake-up call, that recognition has not necessarily translated into effective action.

As many as 200 to 300 antibullying programs are currently being marketed to schools. Only a handful, however, are widely considered to be truly effective.

These tend to be programs that require the involvement of all children and adults connected with the school system. Everyone, including school bus drivers and cafeteria aides, is trained to recognize bullying and develop strategies for dealing with it. Adults are taught that it is not acceptable to ignore the problem. Children are asked to ponder more deeply questions of kindness and fairness and how these relate to the kind of world they would like to live in.

The best of these programs, Dr. Pollack says, are "absolutely enlightened." But many others he dismisses as little better than "fads."

Program effectiveness, however, is not the only problem facing educators. Even as officials unveiled the Colorado Anti-Bullying Project last month, administrators and bullying experts in other parts of the country were voicing concerns that other issues will overshadow the need to address a problem that has potentially deadly consequences.