Every other week, Kim Stephenson's son came home with a bloody nose and broken glasses. She was suspicious, but believed him when he explained his injuries away as "play wrestling" with his friends. Halfway through the school year, however, Craig began staying home sick. So often, in fact, that the family received a truancy notice from the school district. "That's when we knew we had a big problem," she says.
The Stephensons' problem is a common one. Nearly 10 percent of children miss one day of school each month for fear of being bullied, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. But kids are often too embarrassed to make bullying an issue -as are some adults.
"Some parents find it embarrassing to have a child who is constantly a target for bullies," says Ron Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center. Embarrassment may cause parents to overlook signs like bruises, torn clothing, and even truancy, he says. "I've had someone say to me, 'Yeah, I guess I should have known something was up when I saw the footprint on the back of my son's T-shirt."
School nurses are often a good source of information for parents who suspect their child is being bullied. "Kids go to the nurse when they want to avoid recess or their lunch period," says Mr. Stephens, who notes that those are the times of the day when children are most likely to run into trouble. In addition, children who routinely rush home from school and make a beeline for the bathroom "may be avoiding restrooms at school" for fear of bullies.
Most schools take bullying seriously, but effecting change may still require some legwork. Parents can request that schools distribute an anonymous survey to students, asking them about bullying in the school, says psychologist Barry McNamara. Such a survey, he adds, can help pinpoint areas around the school where run-ins with bullies are a particular problem. It may also help identify the bullies themselves.
In addition, during school meetings to discuss problems with bullies, parents should take notes detailing the steps that teachers and principals agree to take to intervene with the bullies.
School counselor Paul Von Essen says that parents can take proactive steps to prevent bullying as well. "During chats with teachers, don't just talk about academic progress. Ask them whether your child can handle conflict when it arises," he says. "By doing that, you're saying that you expect the teacher to notice the social aspects of your child's schooling."
If you feel the school isn't protecting your child, "Get off your high horse and ask what you can do to help," Mr. Von Essen says. "That might include practicing assertive or humorous responses to bullies with your child, or even showing them something as seemingly simple as how to make good eye-contact - that's often difficult for victims."
"After that, let teachers and principals know that you take bullying seriously, and that you're willing to take your complaints to the highest levels to make it stop."