The growing problem of bullying in schools
Students at Barratt Elementary in American Fork act out a scene to illustrate bullying. The school implemented a program called "bully blockers" four years ago in an effort to stamp out bullying among its students. SPENSER HEAPS/Daily Herald
Josh and Amy Jones pose for a photograph with their kids, Daphnie, 3, Holland, 6, and Kyler, 10, at their home in Provo on Thursday, April 4, 2013. SPENSER HEAPS/Daily Herald
Sandra Sorenson, the school counselor at Karl G. Maeser Preparatory Academy in Orem, poses for a portrait in her office on Friday, April 26, 2013. Sorenson uses "feelings masks," several of which hang on the wall behind her, as an exercise to help students explain their feelings. SPENSER HEAPS/Daily Herald
School counselor Sandra Sorenson, left, meets with students Tatum Berthold, center, and Cesar Ruiz de Castilla, right, to talk about bullying at Karl G. Maeser Preparatory Academy in Orem on Friday, April 26, 2013. SPENSER HEAPS/Daily Herald
Spring Creek Elementary sixth-grader Emma Graff sits for a portrait at the school in Provo on Friday, April 26, 2013. JAMES ROH/Daily Herald
Spring Creek Elementary third-grader Dominic Greco sits for a portrait at the school in Provo on Friday, April 26, 2013. JAMES ROH/Daily Herald
When Jim was a third-grader, he was half nerd and half athlete.
“Neither group would really accept me,” he said. “They didn’t really understand how I worked. It got to the point where there were a lot of degrading comments. People would throw stuff at me if I tried to get on the playground.”
He knew what the kids were calling him. He also knew one way to make it stop.
“I had a large vocabulary. I knew what suicide was. I almost got to that point. No one knew. I didn’t tell anybody.”
Jim, a Karl G. Maeser Preparatory Academy student who asked that his real name not be used, is not alone in feeling left out, teased and bullied by his peers. The National Education Association reports that six of 10 American teenagers witness bullying in school every day. An estimated 160,000 students stay home each day out of fear of being bullied. About 71 percent of students report bullying as an ongoing problem.
Utah students are not immune.
In Utah, 23.2 percent of males ages 10-18 say suicidal thoughts are because of problems at school, and 57.7 percent of females ages 10-18 say suicide attempts are caused by problems with relationships, according to the Utah Department of Health. And in a survey of Utah’s parents from the Human Rights Education Center of Utah, three-fourths of parents had concerns with bullying, bias and problems in the home, school or community because of a lack of diversity education, training or awareness.
Bullying is more than teasing, making jokes or “boys being boys.” It’s more than throwing punches or pushing a child down. It can include name-calling, calling a student gay or a girl a slut, spreading rumors or mocking a person’s differences, either in person, behind a child’s back or through the Internet or cell phones. It can be pushing a peer around or physically harming him. The less powerful are frequently targeted.
Bullying does more than make life unpleasant for the picked-on students. It can damage their self-esteem, cause depression, distract them from school, hurt academic performance and cause them to be afraid to go to school. In some cases the effects reach into adulthood or worse, to death. Research has indicated that bullying victims are more likely to attempt or complete suicide than their peers who are not bullied.
And yet, as common as bullying is, statistics show that no action is taken in about 85 percent of bullying cases; either the incidents are not reported or the schools do nothing.
The difficulty comes first in defining bullying, then in recognizing it in schools, church groups, playgrounds and neighborhoods. Putting an end to bullying also is not an easy task, because it requires more than just teachers and administrators catching and punishing bullies. It also requires parents to recognize it, empowering victims to come forward and teaching children to be the one who confronts the bully.
It’s no easy task, but Utah County schools are taking it on.
“A person being bullied needs to know that we care about them and would hope that they would tell their parents or their teacher,” said Greg Hudnall, the associate superintendent of the Provo School District and the administrator the police call when a student has committed suicide. “While I appreciate the concern that we may be focusing too much on bullying, my only response to that is, ask that to the child who is being bullied.”
Not so happy valley
Tatum Berthold, now a student at Maeser Preparatory Academy, was bullied at her last school.
“I was bullied for most of my elementary school experience,” she said. “I remember my siblings talking about that junior high is the worst. It happened in elementary school when I was not ready.
“I would walk around — we had a big track — all along whistling songs of my sadness. I didn’t have any friends. People called me teacher’s pet. My teachers were the only friends I had in the world. That is why I am better around adults. I have ADHD. I wasn’t medicated at that time. Just stupid things happened to me.”
“I was in a play, ‘Treasure Island,'” she said. “One of my lines was to insult someone.” For that she used a word that some of the students didn’t know, and they asked her what it meant. “I told them the definition of that word. They ended up calling me that and finding different ways to use it.”
Maeser student Mahron Howard found herself on the receiving end of a hurtful wordplay on her name.
“I was called ‘moron’ all the time,” she said. She was reluctant to ask for help. “It is not one of those things you go to your parents. You don’t want them to fix it. You want the kids to fix it. I didn’t really have any friends until about fourth grade.”
The group of students from Maeser are part of a student advocate program, selected by the teachers and staff to help reduce bullying incidents. Many are in the group because they’ve felt the effects of being bullied. This group invited the Daily Herald to sit in on a meeting and hear their stories.
Sixth-grader Emma Graff from Provo’s Spring Creek Elementary School calls herself a snitch. Others have resented that and bullied her.
“A girl said I was hateful, and that nobody likes me ’cause I am bossy,” she said. “She was mad at me because there was fighting here at school. Ever since I came to this school it has been nothing but bullying. I have been bullied my whole life, from kindergarten through sixth grade.” She transferred to her new school at the beginning of sixth grade.
“For me it wasn’t only like being bullied, but my friends being bullied,” Sara Lynsky from Karl G. Maeser Preparatory Academy said. “It was hard. When I was little it wasn’t at school. People picked on me at swim team — the kids and the coaches. People told me I wouldn’t ever be a great swimmer and it hurt.”
“At my last meet one of the swim coaches — I went up to her and admitted that wasn’t my best,” she said.
“That is because you are doing crappy in practice,” Sara remembers the coach saying.
Sara was suffering from tendinitis, but the coach told her to work through it. “I don’t care how much that hurts,” Sara recalled the coach saying to her. “You need to keep pushing yourself.”
“She didn’t tell me how I could improve,” Sara said.
Dominic Greco, a third-grader, has also been pushed around.
“I was outside and a kid came up to me when I was on a swing,” he said. “He pushed me off and he got on. He was about in the fourth or fifth grade. It just made me feel mad. After, he called me a word. I didn’t know what the word meant, but it was like when someone calls you stupid.”
The factor of fear
Provo School District sent home a survey this spring to gauge parents’ and students’ thoughts on bullying in the district. Of the respondents, 2.8 percent of secondary school students skipped school in the past month for fear that someone would physically hurt them and 6.3 percent would do the same, fearing they would be hurt emotionally or socially.
On the elementary school level, 12.9 percent feared being harassed, bothered or made fun of by a student. 6.1 percent feared being physically hurt. Being excluded from activities was a concern for 9.2 percent of the students.
More than one in 10 students felt they were the subject of rumors or gossip.
Secondary students faced some similar concerns. Of those who responded, 7.5 percent reported they were made fun of because of their size, and 3 percent were left out of because of race or culture, with 3.2 percent left out because of religion.
Seven percent felt they had been the target of rumors or gossip and 6.8 percent had been verbally harassed or made fun of.
“While our research may be smaller than anticipated because not as many parents or students took the survey, we are seeing more aggression from the bullies than in the past,” Hudnall said. “Regardless, any act of bullying is inappropriate and will not be tolerated.”
However, tracking bullying is getting harder because of the advent of technology. Doran Williams, the associate director of Wasatch Mental Health in Provo, said they do not keep statistics about how many bullying cases happen, but based on his experience cell phones have resulted in an increase in bullying.
“The reason for that is the ability to bully,” he said. “Twenty-five years ago they didn’t have cyberbullying. Kids didn’t have cell phones. Technology gives an anonymous way to do it. I think there is more means to do it.”
“The majority of kids in junior high and up have cell phones,” he said. “They can take a picture and can post things instantaneously.”
What bullying looks like
Facebook posts, cell phone pictures and cyberstalking have joined the ranks of fighting, name-calling and gossiping as acts of bullying.
“The research definition of bullying shows three important things — the intent to harm, a high frequency of the problem or behavior and a power differential,” Scott Ross, an assistant professor at Utah State University and a specialist in behavior support systems, said. “The bully must be more powerful than the victim,” he said.
Defining bullying is the easy part. Recognizing those factors on the playground is a much different story.
“Imagine you are an adult on the playground or school,” he said. “It’s hard to figure out whether there is an intent to hurt or a power differential. That’s really difficult for adults to do. That’s why there is such a low frequency of reporting. For the kids it’s even harder. It becomes an arbitrary line.”
Bullying takes different forms depending on geography.
“You’ll see more cyberbullying in higher socioeconomic status areas,” Ross said. “In Tennessee, there is a big bullying behavior, with kids coming back with a bigger insult, and going back and forth, often resulting in fights. In California, it was actually more around saying things like ‘you’re stupid.’ Depending on the culture of the school you’re going to see bullying look different.”
Bullying can take many forms, including physical, verbal, emotional or cyberbullying. Kids can be punched, pushed, shoved or otherwise intimidated to provide a feeling of power or superiority for the bully. They may be called names or have embarrassing information shared about them. Cyberbullying — using technology to harm another — is relatively new. It often is done through means that do not reveal the instigator. That doesn’t make it less hurtful.
Brian Drake, a seventh-grader at American Fork Junior High School, has been on the receiving end of a mocking Facebook post.
“A girl in my band class posted that I looked like a retarded mushroom from Mario,” he said. “A lot of people saw it and they started saying it to me at school.”
Syd Hackford, assistant principal of Lone Peak High School, said cyberbullying is increasing.
“It’s a new style of bullying that allows the bully to be anonymous,” she said. “It is hard to protect kids when we don’t know who the opposition is.”
That anonymity can contribute to the bullying escalating quickly. Recent threats to one teenager at the school required law enforcement intervention.
“A girl had no idea who was sending threatening text messages,” Hackford said. “She came to me for help. She emailed copies of the conversations. I confirmed they are absolutely harassing.”
The person who sent the messages used an app to disguise his or her identity.
“Are they in this classroom? Do I see them at lunch?” Hackford said the victim is wondering. “We have an obligation to offer support and help the person through a difficult situation,” Hackford said. “She is thinking about this and it is keeping her from giving her full attention to school.”
“The toughest ones to deal with are kids who are fearful to be at school because they don’t know who is bullying them,” she said. “It is coming through digital devices through anonymous sources. We need to put the focus back on our primary function, which is learning. Kids get quite traumatized by these incidents.”
Joshua Jones has children of his own, but he still sometimes thinks about being a child in his neighborhood who didn’t go to church with the rest of the kids.
“My father was not LDS and my mother was LDS, but an inactive member,” Jones, an Orem resident, said. “I grew up with kids who were LDS and they would often torment me and pick on me for not going to church. I tried very hard to be friends with these kids, but there was no hope. They would ignore me at lunch and sometimes even trip me and play mean pranks on me.
“One occasion that stands out was when one of the kids invited me to his birthday party. I was so excited. I thought maybe people were starting to come around. I told him the day before his party that I was excited and he told me he only invited me because his mom made him, and he would be very embarrassed if I were to come because I didn’t go to church.”
“I had his present already,” he said. “I went home and was looking at it, crying. My mom came home and saw me crying. I told her I was not really invited because he was embarrassed because I don’t go to church. My mom said I could keep the present and she and I would go out and do something nice.”
That wasn’t the only time his parents stood behind him. Sometimes too they stood up for him, when his tormentors were a little bigger than he was.
“It was not only the kids, I found out,” Jones said. “Their parents a lot of times were just as cruel. I had one mom say that she didn’t like me coming over to her house because I was scuzzy. I went riding on my bike past another house and the dad chased me down and rubbed car wax in my hair.
“His son was a big jock and I was scrawny,” he said. “My dad was a big man. He scared the living hell out of that man. The man told him he was just joking, but my dad pointed out that I was crying. ‘He wasn’t having fun, and you are an adult.’ “
Yet turning to his parents sometimes made his situation worse; kids, he knew, are supposed to play with other kids.
“It isolated me even more,” Jones said. “I felt very alone a lot of times.”
“All of this started because I didn’t go to church,” he said. “The good kids who should have been encouraging me to go to church with them terrified me of going to church. I tried to be nice to everyone regardless of what they did to me. The behavior from these kids gave me many sad and lonely moments.”
He said he is affected still.
“To this day I will bump into them,” he said. “They tell me that I was always so nice to them. They didn’t try to prove anything to me anymore, but they did some really mean things to me.”
“It still sticks with me a little bit,” he said. “I am not quite happy with how I was treated. I think about it every day. There are aspects where I catch myself maybe feeling sorry for myself. I always worry that I am saying and doing the right thing so nobody has any ability to say anything about what I say or do. I am very conscious about it. I worry sometimes more about what people think based on what happened, but for the most part I do what I can and have just moved past it. Sometimes it is not easy.”
The bystander effect
Bullies like an audience.
Professor Ross said bullies tend to act in groups or to act in front of a group of bystanders. They like the attention. Almost nine out of 10 bullying incidents happen while a bystander is watching and laughing, which encourages the bully to keep bullying.
But groups can work in favor of the victim as well.
“At the beginning of the year I had a ninth-grader come up, grab me by the throat and pin me to the wall,” Brian Drake, who was also cyberbullied by a bandmate, said. “His friend shoved me. It really hurt. They did it because they thought it was funny. They both walked away laughing about it. It was right outside the principal’s office, too.”
So Brian tipped the numbers in his favor.
“A bunch of friends who were ninth-graders said they would protect me,” he said.
That’s exactly what Ross and his organization, the Stand for Courage Foundation, are encouraging.
“Bystanders possess a great deal of power to shift attention away from the negative and toward the positive,” the group’s website says.
Since at least some of the motivation seems to come from gaining attention, the organization is working to remove that attention and shift it to those who are responding correctly to discourage bullying.
“We are working to catch the kids in the school doing right,” Ross said. “We are reinforcing them for responding the right way.”
And it makes a difference. Tatum Berthold, who was teased using a word she’d explained to her tormentors, found an unexpected hero one day.
“There was a pack of bullies, guys who were jocks,” Tatum said. “They would always bully weaklings, underdogs. One was in my ward. I would have to go to church with him. He was a bystander.” She said when the others called her the name they got from the lines of the play she was in, he stood up for her.
“I didn’t want to be called that. The bystander in my neighborhood stood up from picking up some of his things. He looked at his pack of friends and looked at me. He said, ‘Don’t call her that. She is not that.’ Almost everybody turned and looked at him and their jaws dropped. Ever since then I have had large respect for him.”
The boy did not lose his friends because he stood up for her.
“His pack of friends kept him in that pack,” she said. “They have said they realized and respect him enough for the bravery. In a million years I will never forget that. That was one of the reasons that gave me hope. I am someone people can care about. It will always make me respect him forever.”
Do you have a story you want to share about bullying? Send your info to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the second in a two-part series. Click here to read Part Two.