Between the much-ballyhooed 2011 documentary “Bully,” the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito imbroglio that led to Incognito’s suspension and Martin walking away from the Miami Dolphins because he felt he was being bullied, and a long line of other recent high-profile cases, there’s no doubt bullying is having a moment in the zeitgeist.
When Karla Beck first became principal of Northside Elementary a couple years ago, bullying was the buzzword, with parents constantly calling with bullying complaints, she said. “Everybody was saying it, but people now have a better understanding of what bullying actually is, and it’s still a big problem, but parents have learned that every student action is not bullying, and the amount of times parents have talked with us about bullying is way down.”
For years, Minnesota had a short and arguably vague bullying policy, but that changed with a new, expanded, and detailed policy signed into law April 9 by Governor Mark Dayton. School districts must have the new policy in place for the 2014-2015 school year.
According to the Minnesota Department of Education, The Safe and Supportive Schools Act: directs public and charter schools to adopt local policies to prevent and prohibit school bullying; defines what behaviors and patterns of behaviors should be considered bullying in Minnesota, including online forms of bullying through social media (cyberbullying); designates a staff member at each school to monitor and report incidents of bullying behavior; provides regular training for education professionals to identify and prevent bullying; and creates a school safety technical assistance center and technical assistance council to assist schools in implementing new bullying law requirements.
Stephanie Nordstog just completed her first year as assistant principal at Northside, and, among her myriad duties, she’s in charge of discipline. She said perhaps the best way to combat bullying is to choke it off before it starts through proactive measures, so each teacher addresses his or her class on bullying.
There’s a similar goal at Butterfield-Odin school, where counselor Tammi Samuelson teaches elementary students a “character curriculum” that focuses on respect. The school has other helpful programs as well, including a seventh grade ”Making the Peace: Violence & Bully Prevention" program, a group of fifth graders called the Ambassadors of Peace, and a Peace-maker of the Month award for an outstanding elementary student. The school also held an anti-bullying assembly for the entire student body this February, where they brought in a guest speaker to discuss the dangers and consequences of bullying.
Butterfield-Odin’s focus is to is to educate students about the problem so they can identify potentially dangerous situations, and report it to the appropriate people, according to Brenda Kelly, the school’s social worker. “We want our students to know that there are many safe adults in our school that they can talk to. It's our hope that they will make good choices throughout their lives thanks to the skills we’ve taught them.”
Looking back over decades of experience at St. James High School, Eugene Hildebrandt--dean of students--said there certainly hasn’t been an increase in complaints lately; if anything, there are fewer complaints, and he attributes this to the education students are receiving during their youth. “They’ve been through it, and they know what bullying is.”
Nordstog said many of the interactions that come across her desk don’t actually fit the bullying description--repeated instances, power differential between parties, etc.--but they all get a full investigation, because people need to feel they’re being heard, especially on sensitive issues. “We take all reports seriously and investigate them fully.”
“Whether the behavior ends up being bullying or not, the situation is real to the child receiving the inappropriate behavior, and our goal is to get the unwanted/inappropriate behavior to stop,” she continued. “Thankfully, with students becoming more engaged in instruction and more aware of positive behavior expectations, discipline referrals in general have decreased.” She responds to accusations within a day, and then she begins the investigation, talking to multiple parties to learn the interpersonal relationships between the parties in question.
Often, it’s just joking that goes too far, and students may not even be aware that what they’re doing is harming the recipient, she said. In very few instances is it genuine bullying by a student attempting to be malevolent. In many cases, the parties are actually friends, and a running gag was simply taken too far.
Dealing with Misbehavior
Sometimes mediation is appropriate and helpful, but other times a party is too sensitive, and Nordstog tackles the problem with alternative measures, she said. “It’s a small number of cases that are actually bullying, another small number that is friends getting out of hand, and a large number of more circumstantial cases.”
Hildebrandt settles many cases with “conflict mediation.” Both parties come to his office, and both give their version of events, without interrupting each other, he said. But, both parties must consent; in some cases, the victim doesn’t want to see the perpetrator.
“I straighten them out, (telling them) you’re getting close to this line, and you don’t want to cross it,” he said. Students usually correct course.
He added that, despite possible social pressure, most of the complaints regarding bullying or inappropriate behavior come to him through the victims, rather than through friends, peers, teachers, or parents. “Because I know a lot of the kids, they feel comfortable coming to me.”
It’s rare for the aggrieved party to speak up at Northside, however; rather, it’s more often a witness--usually an adult, but sometimes another student, Nordstog said. “We talk to students about the need to watch out for each other and the difference between reporting and tattling.”
“Many times, they don’t even understand they’re being hurtful or having that (harmful) effect,” she said. “My goal is just to end the behavior, not necessarily to label it--school needs to be a safe place.”
St. James High School Principal Ted Simon said the “front lines” when students feel uncomfortable are Hildebrandt and the school’s social worker, Kira Wellner. Students usually go to one of them, and Simon is then brought in to conference on more serious cases.
“Kids are usually more forthcoming if there are fewer adults around,” Simon said. “In a majority of cases, it’s inappropriate adolescent behavior, rather than bullying.”
Even so, every case receives scrutiny, Hildebrant said. In many instances, Hildebrandt has to remind the offending party that the victim’s perspective is the one that matters. If someone feels they’re being bullied, harassed, or mocked, it needs to be addressed, regardless of whether the offender had malicious intent.
One especially helpful tool is the file they keep on students. Through the file, they can quickly determine whether a given student is a first time offender or a recidivist, and if he/she has bullied/taunted a particular victim before.
Social Media and Cyberbullying
Both Hildebrandt and Simon also expressed exasperation at the elephant in the room--social media, and the cyberbullying that can accompany it.
“The majority of the discipline problems involve some sort of social media,” Simon said. “What used to be little things now continue day and night; it no longer ends when school ends.” What were once throwaway one-liners are now able to live on through the wildfire of social media.
Fay Prairie, a professional counselor who was the guest speaker for Butterfield-Odin’s bullying assembly, expressed similar concerns about the continuous nature of cyberbullying, explaining to the students that it's something victims can't get away from.
"Online bullying can be worse because its 24-7,” she said. “It's much easier for a bully to say something vicious online because they can't see the victim's face or reaction or pain through the computer."
Prairie explained that once something is on the web, it’s almost impossible to get rid of entirely, and people will never forget what’s been posted. Students have to make sure they’re in the right state of mind when they post online. Mixing strong emotions, like anger, sadness and even extreme joy with technology can cause youth to get carried away and to post something that they’ll soon regret.
Nobody in a position of authority at St. James High School monitors social media, like Twitter accounts or Facebook pages of the students, because it’s out of their purview, Simon said. “When it’s in the ‘bubble of education’ here, we get on it.” But, if someone rants in a Facebook post, or goes on a Twitter screed after a weekend party went sour, there’s nothing the school can do.
Due to the age of the students at Northside, Nordstog said cyberbullying is not yet a major threat. But, it is trickling in, and, as younger and younger children become more technologically adroit, she anticipates it will become a major issue in years to come even at the elementary level.
Making Schools a Welcoming Place
Simon said that strong student attendance is indicative of a welcoming school, and across grades 6-12, the high school had a 95 percent attendance figure for this academic year.
“We need to make this a place you want to be,” he said. “Our attendance is tremendous, better than (many) other schools.”
Northside Elementary held their first ever promotion ceremony on the last day of school this year for departing fifth-graders entering the six-12th grade building. During the ceremony, Simon Beck, a St. James High School student from the class of 2014, spoke to the group and gave tips for entering high school.
“Don’t worry, be active in school, find role models and be yourself,” he shared. Beck explained that everyone at the high school is friendly and remembers what it was like to be a little kid at a new school. Being active in school is a great way to get used to the new environment. Students who get involved in extracurricular activities get the most out of their high school experience, and will experience new things, meet new people and have a great time. Having role models to learn from and look up to can be helpful. Students should recognize those doing the right thing around them and try to emulate them.
The former fifth graders are going from being the oldest students in their school to the youngest, a transition the schools are trying to make as seamless as possible.
“We want to make [the high school] building a welcoming place,” Karla Beck said. Discipline referrals were down at Northside this year, and there were fewer children sent to the office than in previous years.
Earlier this school year, some of the high school students began working on a play to address the issue of bullying.
Arica Otte, an English teacher at the school heavily involved with student activities, acknowledged that bullying is a problem at the school, and all schools need to combat it any way they can.
Students said they’d like to see stricter rules pertaining to bullying in schools as well as better enforcement of those rules.
“Kids are afraid the teachers aren’t going to help, but they need to understand that’s what teachers are there for--to help,” said then-senior Connor Engel. “I’ve always been one to stand up to bullying, because it’s not morally right.”
Brenda Cervantes and Kimberly Carreon, then juniors, concurred with Engel.
“You see kids getting bullied, but we don’t do anything about it,” Cervantes said. “But, once you see everyone else wants to help, it makes you want to stand up for it, (too).”
Carreon added, “There is help, and I’d like to see teachers express an interest in kids, so people know they can go (to them) for help.”