- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 25, 2005

Bullying is no longer considered a harmless rite of passage in childhood, says Capt. Stephanie Bryn, a spokeswoman on the issue for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Adults need to recognize it’s not OK,” Capt. Bryn says. “In the past, we really didn’t deal with bullying. We said, ‘Boys will be boys. Girls will be girls.’ We don’t let that go anymore. We ask that people would stop and address bullying.”

Bullying, repeatedly lashing out at other people physically or verbally, can affect students’ well-being. Harassment can lead to problems such as depression and a drop in grades.

Currently, 22 states have anti-bullying legislation, including Maryland and Virginia, which both adopted laws this year. Virginia law requires that students receive instruction on the inappropriateness of bullying and provides legal protection to school authorities who report incidents of bullying. Maryland law requires that incidents of student harassment or intimidation be reported.

As a way to address the issue of bullying, Capt. Bryn, director of injury and violence prevention programs for the Health Resources and Services Administration at HHS, heads a campaign called “Stop Bullying Now! (www.stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov). Started in 2001, the movement provides resources for schools and communities through its interactive Web site.

If people are educated about the severity of bullying, then, it is hoped, adults and children will work together to prevent it, Capt. Bryn says. Health and safety professionals, mental health professionals, educators, law enforcement officers and youth organizations play a vital role in dealing with bullying.

Children who bully are likely to commit vandalism and drop out of school, she says. About 71 percent of school shooters, 29 out of the 41 students studied, reported they had been bullied and persecuted prior to the incidents, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Education and the Secret Service. All of the attacks studied took place between 1974 and June 2000.

One of the hardest forms of bullying to track is “cyber bullying,” in which students create Web sites that contain rumors or threats, Capt. Bryn says. If this happens, students should print out the information found online and show it to a trusted adult.

Bullying isn’t merely a problem found in school, says Stephen Zagami, director of student services for Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville. In fact, bullying usually happens in unstructured, unsupervised times, he says.

“If the teacher doesn’t see bullying, it could be happening outside school,” Mr. Zagami says. “Most of the school day is very structured.”

Signs that a child may be bullied include torn or damaged belongings, unexplained bruises or scratches, fear of what should be a safe experience, a change in friends, a loss of interest in activities, depression and complaints of headaches or stomachaches to avoid an activity.

Parents also should be aware of behaviors that would suggest their child is a bully, he says. Impulsive, hot-headed, dominant behavior is exhibited by bullies. Boys usually are more likely to physically harass another child, while girls are more likely to exclude peers, make verbal threats and spread rumors.

When children are easily frustrated, lack empathy, have difficulty following rules and view aggression in a positive way, parents should take proper disciplinary measures to prevent bullying.

Parental guidance is extremely important, says Dr. Joseph Swider, child psychiatrist at Washington Hospital Center in Northwest. In general, the problem begins in elementary school, peaks in middle school and trails off by high school, when most students have developed healthy coping mechanisms.

Studies have shown that bullies watch more TV and have less parental interaction, he says.

Many times, the parents themselves are challenged with psychological issues, and spend their time trying to get their own emotional needs met.

“Not all bullies come from abusive families,” Dr. Swider says. “A lot of times, bullies themselves come from a good family, but they have poor self-esteem. By having dominance over another child, it may boost their own self-esteem.”

When children report incidents of bullying to parents, it’s important to believe the child and discuss it with the appropriate teachers and principals, he says. After communicating with the school administrators, health professionals could be approached, if the child shows symptoms of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, Dr. Swider says.

“The child should be firm about not tolerating the bullying,” Dr. Swider says. “Doing nothing will only ensure that it will continue to happen. The parents can help the child confront the bully in a way that doesn’t have to be physical.”

Counseling, loss of privileges, parent conferences, detention, recommendation for expulsion and treatment programs are some of the recommended corrective actions for bullies, says Melva Holloman, liaison for school counselors with the Alexandria City Public Schools.

“For learning to take place, you need a safe environment,” Ms. Holloman says. “Children cannot learn effectively if they fear for their safety. Everyone has the right to be safe while in school so that learning can take place and everyone can succeed to their potential.”

If students aren’t feeling good about themselves, it will affect their academic success, says Alvin Crawley, assistant superintendent for student services for Arlington Public Schools. “The Bully-Free Classroom,” “Quit It,” and “Flirting or Hurting” are curriculums teachers use in the school district to address bullying.

When talking about bullying, teachers are instructed to not only address the bullies and the victims, but also the entire peer group that might indirectly enable the behavior.

“There has been a lot of publicity about bullying and exclusionary behaviors,” Mr. Crawley says. “It continues to be an area that we need to work on, to make sure we are addressing it appropriately from a counseling perspective and disciplinary perspective.”

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