Bullying has been a part of the school-age experience for years. And for a long time, many teachers and parents accepted it as normal behavior.
Not anymore. Spurred by an increase in violence, school administrators across the country are taking a firm stand against bullying.
Locally, educators are concerned enough that they're conducting workshops and studies on the topic. David Seaburn, director of the FamilySupportCenter in the SpencerportSchool District, is leading a series of workshops for parents and teachers this month. RIT professor Sam McQuade is leading a study of cybercrime among youth, and online bullying will be among the focus areas.
In 2001, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that 30 percent of US teenagers had either been bullied or had bullied someone else.
Bullying has become a buzzword for a wide range of behaviors, but usually it involves actions intended to hurt someone who seems weak or vulnerable. It can include direct physical attacks: hitting, tripping, bumping into someone intentionally, knocking books out of a student's hands, or spilling water and food on them.
It can involve damaging another child's belongings: staining their clothes, spray-painting their bike.
It can include threats and intimidation.
But one of the most painful characteristics of bullying is that it can seem relentless. It can take on a life of its own, attracting new participants. It can shape school-wide opinions about a student that are difficult to overcome --- that the student is stupid, steals, or uses drugs, for instance.
"There was a time when it wasn't seen as a problem," says psychologist David Seaburn, who is leading the workshops in Spencerport. "It was sort of a right of passage. Boys need to be toughened up, that sort of thing. But the difference is, schools are now operating in the post-Columbine era. We now know these kids were bullied, and one of the responses from kids who are bullied is aggression."
The complexity of bullying is just now being appreciated, says Seaburn. It is not limited to boys. Girls can be just as aggressive, and Seaburn stresses that there is seldom only one victim. The person who bullies is often a victim, too.
"We see a lot of kids who do the bullying," says Seaburn, "and many of these kids are at risk. One of the first things we look at is what else is going on in that kid's life. We might want to know what is going on at home. What kinds of relationships does this kid have with others?"
Many bullies have been abused long before they become abusers. They may be living in an unstable environment, and bullying someone can give them the sense of control that is missing in their lives.
One of the biggest challenges for parents, teachers, and administrators is intervention, because often bullying isn't seen. It is timed so that it doesn't draw the attention of school officials, and students who are bullied are reluctant to ask for help.
In addition, "some students are afraid that seeking help will only make the problem bigger and more serious," says Seaburn. And, he says, many victims of bullying feel guilt and shame. "Similar to domestic abuse," he says, "there is this sense that 'I must deserve this; there is something wrong with me; I'm too geeky, or I'm too fat.'"
"It's a horrible thing, shame," he says. "I've seen kids that don't go to the bathroom, don't go to some classes like gym, or don't eat because they won't go near the lunchroom. They are hiding the problem, because it is that serious for them."
The effects of bullying are both short and long-term. In addition to poor grades, students who are bullied are at greater risk for future mental-health problems, including suicide, according to a 2006 study on teen health by the Nemours Foundation. And bullies often go on to develop more violent behavior. One out of four elementary-school bullies has a criminal record by the time he or she is 30.
Not all bullying happens at school. It can take place at shopping malls and recreation centers, and, more recently, in cyberspace. In the September 2006 issue of District Administration, an education trade magazine, writer Julie Sturgeon describes a confrontation between teenagers. Using cell-phone text messages and popular internet sites like Myspace, students hurled insults and threats at each other.
The Eugene, Oregon-based Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use reports that 19 percent of regular internet users between ages 10 and 17 say they are aggressive in cyberspace. Typical of cyberspace rage: rumors, embarrassing pictures, well-coordinated snub parties, hazing, and fights. And perhaps most damaging, whatever goes into cyberspace is presumably permanent, its effects lasting.
RIT professor Sam McQuade, author of "Cybercrime," has recently organized the Rochester Regional Cybersafety and Security Initiative, to study the online behavior of 26,000 area students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The project involves 20 area public school districts and area Catholic schools and has the support of three national agencies: the NationalCenter for Missing and Exploited Children, Information Systems and Security Association, and InfraGard.
"The purpose is to understand cyber offenders and victimization by and among youth, and use it as a base of instruction and intervention," says McQuade.
In studies of students at RIT and SUNY Brockport, McQuade found a large number of students who had been victimized multiple times. And, he found, the majority of victims and perpetrators of cybercrime and bullying know each other.
Victims and perpetrators frequently change roles.
"The data says bullies, harassers, and people who stalk online as offenders were once victims," says McQuade. "The other thing we've learned is that the bullying on the school ground is different in cyberspace in the sense that it's not big kids against little kids. It doesn't matter."
School districts are in a precarious position when it comes to online bullying and youth cybercrime, says McQuade, because very little of it happens in schools. Most of it is happening at home or anywhere else that students are able to download or send text information.
"But the problems are spilling back into the schools," says McQuade.
Fifty years after the first online crimes were reported, McQuade says, we are just beginning to think about ethics.Young people have grown up with technology, he says, but they haven't learned ethics from their parents because the parents are often not tech-savvy, even in a cybertown like Rochester.
"Not only is the technology improving, making more and more things possible," says McQuade, but college students "vary widely in their position on what is a crime."
"That says a lot," he says.
Besides having a clear no-bullying school policy, parents and teachers need to be aware of the signs that a child is being bullied, says Seaburn. Some are obvious: a lack of interest in school, frequent bouts of nausea and anxiety just before school, depression, and a heightened desire to stay home.
Others may not be so obvious: extreme hunger after school, ripped or soiled clothes, injuries and bruises accompanied by unusual explanations.
"Assuring kids who are bullied that they are not alone and there is nothing wrong with them is an important first step," says Seaburn. "We have to address strategies for coping, even if that means avoiding the situation as a short-term solution."
Another step is learning how to anticipate a bully's reaction and what encourages the bullying, says Seaburn. Crying, for example, could be the trigger that keeps the bullying cycle alive.
When dealing with children who do the bullying, Seaburn says, it's important to get them to accept responsibility and to develop empathy. Seaburn looks at whether there is authority in the home or the child makes the rules. He also pays attention to how the parents express anger. Do they swear, verbally abuse, or hit when they're angry?
"Most parents are very responsive when they hear what their kid is doing," says Seaburn. "But others respond similar to their child --- with anger, denial, and defensiveness."
"They'll say things like, 'He was just reacting to what someone else did to him,' which reduces the bully's responsibility," he says.
Fathers tend to be dismissive and mothers are usually more protective, says Seaburn, but both can lay a lot of the blame on the school instead of recognizing the need to build a partnership that protects children.
Two more workshops on bullying will be held this months, sponsored by the Spencerport School District's Family Support Center: "Internet Bullying and Computer Safety" at 7 p.m. Wednesday, October 18, and "What Can Parents and Students Do in Response to Bullying" at 7 p.m. Wednesday, October 25. Both will be held at the Cosgrove Library, 2749 Spencerport Road in Spencerport. The cost: $3 for residents of the SpencerportSchool District and $6 for non-residents.