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SCARED IN SCHOOL

How to make a difference in the fight against bullying

2013-05-20T00:45:00Z 2014-03-21T11:43:44Z How to make a difference in the fight against bullyingBarbara Christiansen - Daily Herald Daily Herald
May 20, 2013 12:45 am  • 

Hunter Rasmussen of Lehi learned to stand up for himself and others against bullies -- by studying martial arts.

"I tell others to leave kids alone or walk away. I give them one look in the face," he said. "I hope they don't challenge me 'cause it won't end well. When I see bullying happening I always tell them to knock it off."

Bullying continues to be a concern for many students in Utah, with some reluctant to attend school for fear of being bullied. A relatively new form of bullying, called cyberbullying, affects its victims through today's technology, often anonymously.

Educators, students, parents and others have made strides in adapting to the issues, teaching the victims and bystanders to respond to lessen the impact of the bully. Many schools are implementing awareness and prevention programs and are seeing results.

Perhaps nothing, though, can replace the impact of a friend.

Maeser student Tatum Berthold was teased after playing a role in a school production of "Treasure Island." Kids teased her using a word from the play that she'd explained to them.

Acting, however, also put her in the life of another girl who felt friendless and alone.

"She told me if it hadn't been for 'The Wiz' and the kindness that we gave her, she may not have been on this earth anymore," she said. "One friend, two if you are lucky, can save a life."

Standing for someone

More than two years ago Hunter was a new seventh-grader at Willowcreek Middle School. A few weeks in, a ninth-grader started hassling him on the bus.

"One day he stole my backpack. I got really mad at him," Hunter said. "He started taking pens from the backpack and tossed them out the window. ... He said 'you need to give me money.' He finally gave the backpack back. The next day, he said 'do you have my money? I will beat you up.'

"He told me to give him my wallet or he would beat the crap out of me. I didn't."

Hunter, now 15 and a ninth-grader, was reluctant to tell his family about the problem.

"My mom finally got it out of me," he said. "She drove me to school. I talked to my counselor. The next school day was Monday. On the bus he didn't even touch me or look at me for the rest of the year." He learned his counselor had met with the bully and his counselor.

Hunter has seen the boy on the bus since then, but has ignored him.

"I don't like to sit in the back of the bus," he said. "That is where the hooligans sit."

He doesn't just avoid the bullies, though.

"He had been bugging me about taking martial arts classes," Heather Rasmussen said. "He was a small seventh-grader. He has been in martial arts this whole time. He will be getting his black belt in September. Because of that he has a ton of confidence. He feels secure and not afraid of much."

Sometimes students take action; some help comes from schools; other times parents and other adults step in to stop or prevent bullying.

Jim, a third-grader at Maeser who asked that his real name not be used, didn't really find anywhere to fit in at first. However, when he did, he found it made all the difference.

"I don't think I could understand until a year or two later when I realized it could be different," he said. "If people hadn't reached out and talked to me it would have been so much different. The last fourth of the year I found some friends. They literally saved my life. It was that close. All you have to do is just reach out and smile and say 'Hi.' "

Cesar Ruiz de Castella from Karl G. Maeser Preparatory Academy said he was teased and left out when he was younger.

"You just feel you are not as important as everybody else," he said. "I was just quiet in class. I didn't have anybody I could talk to. In fifth grade I was in an accelerated learning lab. We were considered nerds. I was in my own little world. I was just left out. I was really shy. It didn't feel good. They don't realize when they are actually hurting someone's feelings."

Things were hard for him until he found new friends.

"There were these three kids that joined," he said. "They were the best friends I could ever ask for. They changed my life. I was no longer alone. I went from being that quiet little kid back in elementary. I became someone else. It is really interesting. It is hard to describe. Now I talk, sometimes a little bit too much. It really shows you what a difference a friend can make. It makes you feel really good. It changes your personality."

Preventing bullying through parenting

Joshua Jones knows what it is like to be different. He grew up non-Mormon in Utah and frequently found himself left out of parties and play groups. He's determined his children will not be bullied -- or be bullies.

"I swore that I would never allow anyone to bully my kids when I grew up," he said. "I have expressed to my children the importance of letting adults know what is going on to them or others and to never be afraid to speak up."

He and his wife reiterate to their children -- ages 10, 6 and 3 -- to not talk about people behind their backs, to not make fun of others or call names. They talk about the golden rule a lot, he said.

"I tell my kids that people are different," he said. "No matter how much you like or dislike them, you need to realize that they are not being raised the same way you are. Do what you can to be nice and accept them for what they are."

He's a stronger person because of his lonely days, he said; he built relationships with the adults in his life and learned to address problems with a sense of humor he may not have had if he'd hung out with the neighborhood kids instead of his mom. But it's not ideal, he knows, and he doesn't want other kids to deal with what he did.

"Hope is not gone when you're bullied," he said. "Some people get so upset from being bullied that they have nobody to turn to. There is always somebody you can turn to -- your grandma, mom, dad, teachers. I never had to feel like I was beneath someone else."

"I just wish that we as parents and people in general, we could just do away with bullying," he said. "Nobody is better than anyone else."

From there, parents need to create a safe environment so children know they can talk to their parents.

"I would tell them to have a relationship with their child, a trust relationship," Doran Williams, the associate director of Wasatch Mental Health, said. "If they are being bullied they would feel comfortable enough to talk about it. If their child is the bully, they would understand what is going on and not say that their child would never do that."

"They should check their kid's phone," he said. "If the kid doesn't follow through at school, they should take it away. Go back to the basic things of parenting -- rather than being a friend, they should be a parent. They should be able to say no, to hold them accountable. They should teach them to demonstrate their social skills."

What schools are doing

A simple statement that bullying will not be tolerated or an assembly focusing on bullying is not sufficient, said Clint Farmer, a social worker at a northern Utah elementary school. Stopping and preventing bullying needs to be a staff priority throughout the year.

"One of the best things you can do is have a counselor on site, particularly at elementary schools," he said. "It needs to be part of the counselor's role to teach this."

"The counselor's most valuable time isn't in the office," he said. "It is before, during and after school, walking through the halls. The counselor should be knowledgeable about who hangs out where and what they do when nobody's watching. I watch who he eats lunch with and who to intervene with. I make myself visible to the student population. That way they're willing to come to you when things go on."

Many schools in Utah County are implementing programs to discourage the attention bullies receive from bystanders. Scott Ross, a behavioral scientist from Utah State University, is working to shift attention to those who respond correctly to discourage bullying.

"We are working to catch the kids in the school doing right," he said. "We are reinforcing them for responding the right way."

Farmer's school found a way to alert teachers about bullying that even a student who struggled to communicate understood.

"He had autism; it was severe but he was functioning pretty well," he said. "He was imitating play he had seen in other students who were playing a game similar to king of the hill. Because the autistic student displayed very little facial expression a male student appeared to be thinking he was being physically challenged and began to shove the autistic student aggressively."

The situation could have gotten ugly, but the autistic student put his hand in front of him and told the boy loudly to stop. It's exactly what the student had been taught to do. Other students jumped in and asked the aggressive student to stop. "It had worked," Farmer said. "The autistic student modeled the behavior we wanted and the other students stepped up and supported him in stopping the bully behavior. The aggressive student stopped his behavior and left the area looking very embarrassed."

That program is called Stop-Walk-Talk, and it makes it easier for the playground monitor to identify a potential situation. Children are first to tell the bully to stop the behavior, then walk away. If it continues, students should talk to an adult. Students should skip the first two steps if the situation is dangerous, but otherwise, stopping and walking must come first. Tattling is not allowed.

Other schools are implementing methods for students, parents and the public to report difficult situations.

Lone Peak High School has a tip line; students, parents or community members may inform the school about bullying, suicidal concerns, drug use, eating disorders, abuse and more. Every tip is followed up on.

"This provides anonymity for people who observe a situation in the school or the community," Syd Hackford, the school's assistant principal, said. "It has been really good. There is a certain fear of retaliation, being the one to tell. Even sometimes the kid who is bullied is afraid to ask for help. He or she may be worried it will get worse."

If the people reporting want to leave their names, they can. The most important information, however, is who's affected and that it's happening now.

"It is frustrating to get a tip on Monday when it happened on Friday," she said. "It is not as helpful as it would be in the moment."

The follow-up is a private meeting between student and staff member. The staffer relates the information received and asks if it sounds familiar. They don't accuse, Hackford said.

"You have to be open-minded when you visit," she said. "There are always two sides to the story. ... You have to allow that person a chance to tell their story. They have something going on that needs our attention and support in a lot of cases, actually."

Sometimes the student admits it, sometimes he doesn't.

"If they don't want to admit it, we give fair warning and appropriate behavior guidelines," Hackford said. "We tell them to pay attention to their behavior because someone perceived they are being a bully."

The Safe to Talk program, used by Lone Peak, has been adopted by more than 140 Utah schools. Kevin Santiago licensed the technology that a BYU student developed. It gives students and others a way to send text messages about concerns they see in the schools or neighborhoods.

"We started getting tips that were just so moving," he said. "We weren't getting it in schools fast enough." They developed the Safe to Talk Foundation to lessen the costs to the schools.

"We want to get it to a point where schools and parents in the community see the value enough that it is worth $1 of student fees every year to make sure that the kids have a place to speak up when they see something," he said.

"It is a way to overcome the fear of retribution," he said. "We are able to do it quickly, while you remember, while it is still happening. We have had an arrest for a drug deal going on in a parking lot."

More information is available at safetotalk.org.

Raising awareness

Earlier this year, two teams of UVU public relations students created anti-bullying campaigns for Utah County middle and junior high schools as part of a national competition. Several students participated because they had either bullied, witnessed bullying or been bullied growing up.

"The only reason I accepted was because I had a personal experience," Henry Cervera, a native of Peru, said. "When I was in high school people used to make fun of my physical aspect -- my big nose. It got to the point I didn't want to go to school. I started asking for permission to leave early. One day the principal called my mom. She didn't know I was missing classes and almost failing the year.

"I gave so many excuses. I felt like I didn't have anybody to talk to. I felt like my mom wasn't going to understand me. Kids don't feel like they have anybody to talk to. That is a sad reality."

"The other reason is when I came to the U.S.," he said. "I have an accent and people started to make fun of my accent. It is not something a native English speaker experiences. That is part of our culture and personality. Sometimes people feel sorry about their heritage. You shouldn't feel that way."

Jon Ingalls' story went a little bit differently.

"My story starts in elementary school on the bus," he said. "I sat near the front and I experienced physical bullying. I don't know if the bus driver saw it or not. It was never addressed for about a week. I felt I had done something wrong. I ended up retaliating myself and was kicked off the bus."

It got worse before it got better. By the time he was a teenager, kids were picking on Ingalls for being overweight. He noticed the popular students were those doing the teasing.

"I made the decision -- I have to be like these people. So I started to pick on other children," he said. "It wasn't until I got called into the principal's office and had my parents come in -- I was on the verge of being expelled from school."

At that point, Ingalls said, the weight of what he was doing descended on him.

"I realized I was hurting this child," he said. "From that moment on I realized that bullying isn't the right avenue. I tried to stick up for people and help them be included and accepted."

The UVU students met with teenagers from several schools and presented information about bullying and methods to stop it. They chose middle schools because that is where children are solidifying their ideas and they felt they could effect the most change.

"We developed a step-by-step program how to understand bullying and how to prevent it," Ingalls said. "The first step is to be aware. When we taught it in our three-day curriculum, we told students about bullying, its types and how they can recognize it within the school. The second step is to be a voice. They could speak out against it, support students that were being bullied and prevent it from happening. We introduced the student advocate idea."

Several of the schools adopted that program and formed groups of students who set out to help others.

"The third step is be the change," Ingalls said. "If you stop the trend of bullying and you show it is cooler to be a friend to everyone and not be a bully, we can change the paradigm by being an example."

Helping the bully

Often, bullies have been bullied. Other times, they've never been taught how to interact with others or how to cope with anger. The bully frequently needs help too.

One of those is Dakoda Davis, a sixth-grader at Greenwood Elementary School in American Fork.

"He was the biggest bully a couple of years ago," principal Jason Benson said. "He was suspended at least seven times. But he has turned it around."

"I was horrible," Dakoda admitted. "I bullied everybody every day. I wanted to terrorize the school."

"I hit people," he said. "I would get into fights with five different people at once sometimes. I used bad language and verbally hurt people. I swore at the principal. I had temper issues."

A new principal helped him make needed changes.

"He actually cared what was going on," Dakoda said of Benson. "He would visit me from time to time. He would sit down and talk to me. Instead of suspending me, he would talk through it."

The transition -- and even the talking -- did not come immediately.

"It didn't happen overnight," Benson said. "Sometimes he would be so mad he couldn't talk. We got the duty guards and teachers involved. They would send him up to the office. We got him to relax and then tell us what was going on. Then we would talk about what we could do better next time."

"He learned that talking is the key instead of yelling and screaming," mom Brandy Davis-Ellison said.

Benson said the school staff had been intimidated by Brandy, a woman who had been unafraid to speak her mind.

"Now we have such a good relationship," he said. Davis-Ellison said she has learned a lot from her son.

"I had a really bad attitude towards a lot of people," she said. "To me it didn't matter. Now that I have seen him change, I have wanted to change and be a better mom."

She has been purchasing wristbands that say "Stomp Out Bullying" and giving them to staff members at the school, with plans to distribute more.

"The cost doesn't matter," she said. "We need to stop bullying."

Safer schools, next steps

Partly because of the Safe to Talk tipline, Lone Peak High School has reduced the number of bullying incidents. Provo School District's bullying survey shows reduced instances of bullying.

"The year before last we had roughly 700 behavior referrals," Spring Creek Elementary principal Melissa Hamilton said. "We implemented the Leader in Me program. It is based on Stephen Covey's seven habits. We also implemented a major focus on bullying. The teachers taught lessons so that the kids were all on board. At first it increased the reporting of incidences. But the next year we went down to 180."

"We still have issues with bullying," she said, "but I think we have created a different environment for our kids."

Karl G. Maeser Preparatory Academy, where Jim, Tatum, Sara, Marohn and Cesar attend, has reported progress. "The school is not only safer, but happier," Cesar said.

"The word has gotten out a little bit about people being nicer to each other," Tatum said. "You have to watch what you say and what you do. The world is your stage. You are the actor and the only one on it. You can either be a turd and be mean to everybody or you can take that stage and become a compassionate character. You can enjoy being kind. I don't want to hurt anybody. I don't want to be a tyrant over anybody."

Sandra Sorenson, the counselor at Maeser, said they are emphasizing communication and understanding.

"We never know what someone else's story is," she said. "Even if they are being the bully we don't know what brought them to that point. I wish we could read everybody's story. If we knew everyone's secret story, we would treat them so much better."

Brian Drake, who suffered bullying and belongs to the Friendship Club at AFJH, was optimistic about being able to curtail bullying.

"I learned that we can be the change in the school and the world," he said. "If we can get one whole school, others may follow."

barbara-christiansen
-- Barbara Christiansen covers news in American Fork ˜ government, schools, residents, business and more.
Read more from Barbara Christiansen here.

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