Bullying a problem in schools

But educators say it's not a cut and dry issue

ILLUSTRATION BY JC AMBERLYN/Miner

ILLUSTRATION BY JC AMBERLYN/Miner

KINGMAN - Bullying is nothing new, but the days of, "Give me your lunch money, or else," have been replaced with Internet harassment, threatening text messages and in some cases students are lodging false complaints.

Names of several sources in this story have been withheld in order to avoid causing them more problems.

One Kingman High 10th grader started being bullied by a former friend at the beginning of this school year. It started when the friend forced the victim to choose between her boyfriend and the friend. The victim chose her boyfriend.

The bullying started with text messages and Facebook posts. The victim received phone calls from her former friend's family, threatening to attack her and the boyfriend. The Facebook posts consisted of vague threats such as, "I was looking for you at school today. Were you hiding again?" and "See you at school tomorrow, wink."

Then it progressed to the former friend following the victim around school despite the girl constantly changing the routes between classes in order to avoid her former friend.

At one point, the former friend and two other girls approached the victim. The former friend dropped her backpack and invited the victim to fight. The girl refused, walked away and used her cell phone to call her mother.

"She was crying, and I could hear the shakiness in her voice," the mother said.

At that point, the mother and the victim involved the school.

The school's plan to deal with the problem was to have the two girls go to peer mediation to come up with a mutual agreement, the mother said. The school also told the girl to avoid her former friend at all costs and suggested she change her lunch hour and a couple of her classes.

The victim refused peer mediation, stating she didn't want to be alone with her former friend without adults around. She also refused to change her schedule, thinking that would mean her former friend had intimidated her to the point of changing her life.

The victim now spends her lunchtime in the library, which has brought more ridicule, the mother said.

"She's becoming depressed," the mother said. "She has always had friends, but now she is withdrawn."

She cries a lot, avoids eating, complains of stomachaches and constantly looks for ways out of going to school, the mother said.

Since the school gave the girl two options that she refused, the school won't do anything else, the mother said. The mother said the school told her that since the Facebook threats were so vague, they weren't really threats.

The victim wants the bullying to stop, so she can get back to concentrating on school, and the mother wants the former friend's parents notified and told this type of behavior is unacceptable.

The fact that the school isn't protecting the victim adds to the girl's fear and stress, the mother said. This could have a lifelong affect because 10th grade is the time for students to start turning the corner and heading for college, careers and adulthood.

"What if it was your child?" the mother asked.

KHS Principal Pat Mickelson said she encourages kids to make reports about incidents of bullying. The report should include who was there, what happened and where and when it happened, she said.

Once a report is received, an investigation is launched in order to confirm whether or not bullying occurred using neutral witnesses and/or surveillance cameras. Parents aren't notified about every complaint, and it depends on the nature of the complaint and investigation if parents of both sides are notified, Mickelson said.

Every student gets due process, she said. If it is an issue of "he said, she said" and nothing can be confirmed, students don't face consequences. However, the issue is documented, she said.

It does not take physical violence to constitute bullying, Mickelson said. The bottom line is whether or not the student feels safe, she said.

Mickelson was not aware of the case involving the two former friends, but said the two Facebook statements seem like they warrant investigation. However, the victim's parents do not have the right to know if the alleged aggressor's parents were contacted, she said.

"Every student is afforded due process and the expectation of privacy," Mickelson said.

As far as changing schedules goes, Mickelson said the school tries to protect the victims' schedules because it is not fair to punish people for the actions of others, but it is possible that both parties' schedules get changed.

Some things regarding bullying need to be shifted in Mickelson's opinion.

There needs to be more staff training as to what exactly bullying is, she said. Cases of bullying often get mislabeled. There needs to be more training for students as well, she said. If someone is picking on a classmate and a student-witness steps up and says, "Stop that," it can stop bullying-behavior in its tracks.

Also, students in positions of power can make the worst offenders, she said. It's hard to see a club president as a bully, so teachers and staff need to be aware that no one is innocent based on reputation.

Mickelson also believes bullying is not a lifetime behavior. Kids start growing out of the behavior in high school, she said. Middle school seems to be where it happens the most.

"A sense of power over someone else can be a seductive feeling," Mickelson said.

A White Cliffs Middle School student who felt he was the subject of more than a year's worth of bullying changed schools recently to avoid the conflict. The issue had progressed from a one-on-one issue to a nine-on-one issue, his mother said. He was threatened repeatedly and feared using the school's bathroom because he thought he would be attacked.

White Cliffs Principal John Venenga said bullying is a definite issue, but he added that it has become a catch phrase. Some parents who don't know the whole story throw the word around, he said.

Every single complaint is investigated, Venenga said. Parents are notified and district policy is followed, he added. He wishes the process was quicker, but uncovering both sides of the story takes time.

The school has a support group for bullied students, he said. Kids are taught how to avoid becoming victims.

"Since the group was started, the incidences of bullying decreased significantly," he said. "Schools and society needs to teach kids how not to be victims."

The boy who changed schools because of bullying played a role in the multiple confrontations despite having been through peer mediation with the alleged aggressor, Venenga said.

Issues may turn into "he said, she said" battles, but "complaints are never swept under the rug," he said. "If we do ignore complaints, issues escalate way too far."

Kingman Unified School District Superintendent Roger Jacks said new policies with more explicit language regarding bullying are coming through from the Arizona School Board Association and should be implemented soon.

The current KUSD manual does not have a specific section dedicated to bullying. It does, however, list bullying as a student code of conduct violation.

"Bullying is no more a problem at KUSD schools than it is across the nation," Jacks said. "We have taken a proactive stance and have zero tolerance for bullying."

Bullying is something that happens over a period of time and becomes so stressful for the victim that he or she has trouble with academics, Jacks said.

It's much bigger than it used to be, he said. Bullying can be anything from constant harassment to Internet problems and text messages.

Issues of bullying need to be reported quick, parents need to be involved, an investigation needs to take place and appropriate action must be taken, Jacks said.

Jacks said the district office received no more than six complaints of bullying last year, which he said is standard. Individual schools handle most complaints, he said. Complaints received by the district are fully investigated immediately, Jacks said.

Whether it's done on the Internet or in the lunchroom, bullying continues to pose problems in education. Without open communication between teachers, administration, students and parents, the problem will continue to plague schools and take away from the most important part of education - academics.