Last year, Kathy Rau’s son, who is epileptic, ended up in the hospital with a concussion.
It wasn’t an accident that put him there. He received 20 blows to the head when a classmate attacked him in the Chancellor Middle School cafeteria in front of much of the eighth-grade class.
“It was a boy he was friends with at first,” Rau said. “The other boy decided he didn’t like my son and would make threats to him through other kids. One day the other student told him to stand up in the cafeteria and just jumped on top of him.”
The case went to court, where the school’s administration showed up to state that it was an unprovoked attack. Rau said she and her husband were asked, privately, if they wanted the attacker to go to juvenile detention.
“We decided, ‘no,’” she said. “But we did want some kind of repercussion. We asked for him to go to anger management classes and to pay us for the hospital bills. We haven’t seen anything yet.”
This incident wasn’t her family’s only experience with bullying in local schools. Her daughter, a senior at Riverbend High School, has experienced bullying since elementary school, Rau said.
“She has special needs, but they’re not visually obvious,” Rau said. “She is socially unaware and doesn’t know when she’s in other people’s personal space.”
Rau said her daughter has experienced a range of social and emotional bullying, starting in second grade, when a group of girls asked her to sing them a song on the playground and then pointed and laughed at her when she complied.
“In eighth grade, a boy gave her the phone number of another popular boy and told her, ‘He likes you,’ knowing that he actually loathed her,” Rau said. “It went around the school.”
Now, Rau said, her daughter has been targeted by a freshman girl who rides her bus.
“She taunts her and gets other people to make fun of her,” Rau said.
The school had Rau’s daughter and the other girl sign a “no contact contract,” which dictates that the two students can’t have direct, indirect or written contact with each other.
Rau said she didn’t know the contract existed until her daughter told her.
“She was glad the other student wasn’t supposed to talk to her, but it almost made her feel like she also did something wrong,” Rau said.
And her daughter and the other student still rode the same bus.
One day, Rau’s daughter called home in tears, saying that she didn’t want to finish high school. Rau decided she needed to leave her 20-year career as a veterinary technician so that she could take her daughter to school in the mornings and be there to pick her up early if things got difficult.
Rau said she knows there are usually two sides to each story.
“My daughter has made mistakes too, told lies,” she said. “And I assume the person doing this has a story, too.”
She also doesn’t blame the school administration. Rather, she blames school bullying policies that she thinks need updating. She’d like to see mandated sensitivity classes for aggressors and their parents as well—just as there are for kids caught smoking or drinking.
“The procedures are weak and kids aren’t afraid of them,” she said.
many reasons for bULLYING
Beverly Epps, an associate professor of education at the University of Mary Washington who teaches professional development programs on “The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander,” said bullying is defined as aggressive or unwanted behavior that is intentional, harmful and occurs over a period of time.
She said there is no one reason why bullying occurs.
“In fact, as people have looked at it, it’s not a two-way street,” she said. “It’s not just the bully and not just the victim, there are the bystanders, too, and there can be many. All these players are impacted by the community, their parents, the school, their teachers, social media—so many things play into it.”
Because each incidence of bullying involves more than two people and many underlying issues, each case needs to be addressed individually, Epps said. This makes the problem difficult for schools to tackle with broad policies.
She said the best way for schools to reduce bullying is to use a “multi-tiered approach” that starts with changing the whole school climate.
“It’s making sure everybody is on the right page in terms of behavior, classroom management, teachers being aware of bullying,” she said.
The next tier would be small-group or peer mediation programs within the classroom and the third tier would be for individuals who are actually bullying.
Epps said a one-time anti-bullying assembly at the beginning of the school year isn’t enough to change a culture.
“It needs to be part of the school environment consistently,” she said.
A CULTURE OF NICENESS
Creating a culture of niceness is what Marjorie Tankersley, principal of Hugh Mercer Elementary School in Fredericksburg, said she tries to do. She said she stresses the importance of kindness to teachers starting as early as their first job interview.
“It starts with the climate of the staff,” Tankersley said. “If you want to work here, you have to be nice to kids. It’s important to me that everybody greeting the kids here has a smile on his or her face and is friendly. It breaks down any brick walls they may have had and gives them something to be positive about.”
She said the school, which serves kids in kindergarten through second grade, rewards kids for positive behavior and praises character traits such as respect, empathy and politeness.
“Kids are like sponges—they will soak that up,” she said.
Hugh Mercer guidance counselor Laura Mungo said she knows from her previous work in high schools that habits of being kind and empathetic start in the early elementary years.
“We know it starts in those years,” she said. “If they don’t learn now, it will trickle up.”
Tankersley said discipline referrals and classroom disruption have decreased since she started promoting the culture of kindness at Hugh Mercer.
Mungo said she uses her time in the classrooms to teach children to advocate for themselves.
“They need to be resourceful within themselves,” she said. “A lot of problems happen when there is a misunderstanding. They need to learn coping skills, how to self-advocate and how to say, for example, ‘I don’t like it when you do that’—not, ‘I don’t like you.’”
Epps said another crucial piece in preventing bullying is bystander education, which also should start as early as kindergarten.
“[The bystander] needs to feel comfortable to go somewhere and let someone know if they see someone being bullied,” she said. “They need to understand that it’s not tattling. They need to feel safe to go to a teacher or an administrator.”
She suggested that schools set up boxes where students can drop anonymous notes if they are worried about retaliation from their peers.
“Bystanders need to know that by ignoring it, they’re saying it’s OK,” she said.
MORE HELP NEEDED
Former Spotsylvania School Board member Amanda Blalock said school systems need more funding to be able to effectively combat bullying. She said schools need to be able to hire more social workers and psychologists who can support students dealing with mental health issues or difficult home environments.
“That all goes hand-in-hand with bullying,” she said. “Usually someone who’s bullying has an underlying problem in themselves, manifesting in a way that is now harming other children. That means mental health support, which is something we don’t have a lot of funding for in public schools and it’s not taken as seriously as it should be taken at the state and local government level.”
Blalock said more psychologists and social workers in schools could also help students deal with how their social lives are changed by today’s technology.
“Social media gives kids access to each other all the time,” she said. “The children’s daily life has changed dramatically from just 15 years ago in high school and in middle school. Why not catch up to that by supporting them with mental health, social workers and psychologists? We have to change who we are as public schools.”
She said she thinks school policies do need to be updated as well.
“We’ve put in things like ‘no contact’ clauses, but it’s time that we put in something where the family has to get involved,” she said. “Because once parents and guardians get involved you start seeing changes.”
“I will say bullying seems to have upped its game lately and it means we need to up our game in fighting it,” Blalock continued.
Social media gives kids
access to each other
all the time.
The children’s daily life has changed dramatically
from just 15 years ago
in high school and
in middle school. —AMANDA BLALOCK, FORMER SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER
IN SPOTSYLVANIA COUNTY