Schools still working to rein in bullies

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.

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.

One major hurdle is funding. With an anticipated $11.3 billion shortfall in state education budgets in 2002, schools will be scrambling for dollars.

"Finances will hurt [antibullying] programs," says Kevin Dwyer, a child mental health consultant based in Bethesda, Md. "School systems are tightening their belts. They're not adding programs, they're trying to find out how they can reduce them."

Then there's Sept. 11.

"Sept. 11 has put everything else on the back burner," says Elliot Aronson, visiting professor of psychology at Stanford University in California and author of "Nobody Left to Hate: Teaching Compassion after Columbine." "In this country, we can only worry about one thing at a time."

And yet, while many mental health experts share Mr. Dwyer's concerns, there are others who insist that, if anything, the terrorist attacks will serve to make antibullying programs in schools all the more imperative.

"What Sept. 11 has done is to heighten awareness of the sanctity of life and the essence of humanity," says John Murphy, director of the school psychology program at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. "There's been an increased focus on people and relationships instead of things. I can't see how that would do anything but strengthen people's interest in making sure we treat each other humanely."

The attacks may also help open the eyes of children to the need for kindness in the world, says Katheryn Jens, school psychologist for the Cherry Creek, Colo., school district.

"Terrorists are a terrible type of bully," she says. "They illustrate the unfair use of power, as well as the idea that those who believe in being kind and fair must stick together. These are the very things we've been trying to teach kids."

Pollack says the need to deal with bullying will not diminish. If anything, the fears connected with terrorism will heighten the emotional pain that tends to trigger bullying.

"This can't be the end," he says of the antibullying programs. If the problem isn't dealt with, he insists, "We'll be seeing more, not less of this."


Don't look to courts for the answers

Society as a whole may feel an increased concern about bullying in schools, but it's not an area that the courts have been eager to address.

This fall, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a North Carolina case in which a father alleged that a school failed to protect his son, who had been beaten repeatedly by school bullies. The North Carolina court concluded that the school was not required to protect the boy from harm by classmates.

"There have been a number of cases like these in which courts have not supported the requirement for schools to protect children from harassment, assault, and bullying," says Dewey Cornell, director of the Virginia Youth Violence Program in Charlottesville, Va. "There's a vast difference between the protections adults have in the workplace and kids have in schools."

With the exception of cases involving civil rights - such as sexual harassment or abuse tied to racial or ethnic prejudice - legal protection against bullying is limited, agrees Perry Zirkel, professor of education and law at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. But he doesn't necessarily see that as a negative.

The best remedy for bullying, he believes, will come not from the courts but from an informed public.

"Awareness does more," Professor Zirkel says. "It causes people to become empathetic" and to help at the local level.

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