Wednesday, September 28, 2011

School district gets proactive on bullying

Administrators and staff being trained in prevention

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County School District Superintendent Lonnie Barber told a public gathering at Monday’s Bullying Awareness Night that “our kids cannot learn at their potential if they’re being harassed or bullied.” Photo by Willy Cook

Administrators don't perceive bullying to be a major problem in the Blaine County School District, but are taking a proactive approach on the issue to prevent it from becoming one.

"There's no major problem here," said William D. Berard III, an attorney with McGrath Training Systems. "This district is very proactive. It's really nice to work on some proactive things because some school districts have a very serious problem."

Berard, from Niagara Falls, N.Y., was in Blaine County teaching a two-day bullying prevention seminar on Monday and Tuesday to school administrators, social workers and counselors. Several other nonprofit organizations were invited and sent representatives to the training. They included the Blaine County Community Drug Coalition, the Blaine County Recreation District, St. Luke's Youth Adult Konnections and the Advocates for Survivors of Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault.

On Monday evening, Berard was the presenter for a public session called "Bullying Awareness Night" at the Distance Learning Lab at Wood River High School. About 25 people attended.

Berard explained that bullying has recently become a nationwide issue because "this is a topic that reaches out to everyone."

"I think everyone is standing up and taking notice," Berard said. "Now we're understanding about how traumatic bullying is on the victim."

He said emotional problems inflicted upon victims can be carried into adulthood and continue to cause depression and other mental problems because victims have developed a sense of not belonging and a lack of self-esteem.

Berard said bullying typically starts at the elementary school level.

"The victim had that target on his back when he was 6 or 7 years old," he said. "When they graduate, they become adult victims."

He said there are three different types of bullying—physical, emotional and relational. In relational bullying, the bullies gossip about victims, spread rumors, ruin reputations or ostracize them from a group.

"It's all the same—it all has the same negative impact on the victim," he said.

Berard said victims typically won't come forward and tell an adult for fear of retaliation, embarrassment or because they don't want to be a "tattle-tale."

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"If you don't tell someone, I can guarantee it's going to get worse," he said.

Berard said bullying is not a one-time occurrence.

"It's systematic behavior," he said. "Once they identify that target, it's repeated behavior because they do it time and time again. Most of the harm is emotional—it really tugs at the victim's sense of well-being."

He said parents, teachers and other adults can identify if a child is being bullied by watching for changes in behavior, such as not wanting to go to school, anxiety, not eating properly or depression.

Berard said school officials now have the legal authority to intervene in bullying, even if it's "cyberbullying" or doesn't occur at school because it adversely affects a victim's ability to learn.

"Anything that deprives a child of the right to get an education, the schools have a right to get involved," he said. "It doesn't matter where it comes from, it carries into the schools."

Berard said some bullying can lead to criminal charges against a bully if it involves physical conduct, threats or the use of technology to harass.

According to Heather Crocker, Blaine County School District director of communications, the district typically investigates about five cases of bullying a year. Offenders can be suspended or even expelled.

Assistant Superintendent John Blackman noted that the School District doesn't monitor Facebook or other social networking websites, but said that "if kids bring it to us and it's something affecting their lives and education, then we can do something about it."

If bullies are identified, Superintendent Lonnie Barber said, "we're going to get them in, we're going to get their parents in and we're going to have a serious discussion."

"It's such an important topic," he said. "Every student is affected, directly or indirectly, by bullying or a harassment. Kids are committing suicide over this."

The district plans to offer the training in October to additional staff, including paraprofessionals who supervise playgrounds and lunchrooms and assist in the classrooms.

Terry Smith:

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