Cover story: The changing face of BULLYING
Published February 2011 Voice
The traditional image of bullies brings to mind film and television characters from the 1950s to today - ranging from Eddie Haskell, the tormenting bully on “Leave it to Beaver,” to Scott Farkus, the unforgettable tormentor in “A Christmas Story,” to the eviscerating, cruel title characters in the film “Mean Girls,” and even an intimidating football player on the current television show “Glee.”
Bullying is something most of us have known from childhood, from personal experience, and TV and Hollywood.
Despite its long-time prevalence, bullying has become an increasingly difficult issue facing our schools, teachers, parents, and students, as bullying incidents continue to grow in number and complexity.
And the nature of and type of bullying has changed with the times, according to Christopher Budano, a school safety expert in PSEA’s Education Services Division. Advancing technology has created "cyberbullying."
“The traditional image of a bully was once similar to stereotypical bullies from popular culture - a student who steals lunch money or torments students at recess,” noted Budano. “But today, a teenager with a cell phone or access to a computer could be just as much of a bully, with the effects on victims being just as, if not more, damaging.”
Research shows that more than one-third of American teenagers are victims of bullying. While most bullying still happens offline and at school, new technology available through cell phones and computers has allowed bullying to extend well beyond the school day.
But the consequences and responsibility for addressing it cycle back to schools. Pennsylvania school districts and PSEA have been out front in dealing with bullying, and the issue has gotten federal attention.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania has been a leader in attempting to pass anti-bullying legislation in Congress, and the U.S. Department of Education has made it clear to local districts across the nation that schools have accountability to stand up to bullies.
Beyond the schoolyard
Before text messaging, instant messaging, and social media like Facebook and Twitter, students could find escape from bullying after school, as traditional bullying “stops at the front door.” In today’s world, bullies can intimidate and harass their victims 24 hours a day, sending tormenting messages with parents sitting unknowingly only a few feet away.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project reported in 2010 that nearly “one third (32 percent) of all teenagers who use the Internet say they have been targets of a range of annoying and potentially menacing online activities - such as receiving threatening messages; having their private e-mails or text messages forwarded without consent; having an embarrassing picture posted without permission; or having rumors about them spread online.”
The consequences of bullying and cyberbullying could not be more severe. Newspaper headlines throughout Pennsylvania and across the country report thousands of student suicides each year. Many of these horrible tragedies involve students being bullied at school and through cell phones or online.
Research shows that victims of cyberbullying are two-thirds more likely to have thoughts of suicide. Many students who are bullied can develop anxiety or depression, lose interest in schoolwork and perform poorly in school, have trouble sleeping or become socially isolated from peers. New research released in January by the “American Journal of Psychiatry’’ even suggests that bullying can increase the risk of a victim developing psychotic symptoms later in life.
As tragic incidents continue to occur and research finds increasingly more long-term consequences to bullying, federal and state governments, along with schools and districts, have stepped up efforts to prevent bullying in schools and reach out to students victimized by bullying at school and at home.
Many Pennsylvania schools have developed comprehensive bullying policies that include cyberbullying; training staff, students, and parents on bullying and cyberbullying; creating anonymous tip lines to report incidents; and creating guidelines and procedures to enforce school policies and prevent bullying.
Schools provide teachers, school nurses, ESP members, guidance counselors, and other staff with tips on how to take action when they encounter incidents of bullying, and how to reach out to students who have been bullied.
Federal and state officials have taken active roles to emphasize the need for schools to address bullying. Last September, Sen. Casey introduced legislation that would require schools to “adopt codes of conduct specifically prohibiting bullying and harassment, including conduct, based on a student's actual or perceived race, color, national original, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or religion.”
In October, 15,000 school districts, and 5,000 colleges and universities received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education reminding them that bullying is a civil rights issue. The “Dear Colleague’’ letter made it clear that some student bullying violates federal anti-discrimination laws that protect gay, lesbian and transgendered students as well as members of other protected groups, providing examples and appropriate responses to bullying. The Department of Education worked with partners to launch a website, www.bullyinginfo.org, for schools, students, and parents.
An uncertain future
Pennsylvania schools working to strengthen their anti-bullying policies and programs will face new challenges in 2011. The news media and elected officials warn of significant school funding cuts in the next state budget.
PSEA Treasurer Jerry Oleksiak, a teacher and behavioral specialist with more than three decades of experience in the classroom, raised concerns about potential funding cuts’ impact on bullying and student achievement.
“After decades of work in public schools, I know first-hand how valuable anti-bullying programs are to protecting and educating both students and staff,” said Oleksiak. “Pennsylvania schools are very involved in building a culture of anti-bullying and will continue to grow and develop programs that work. It’s critical that our elected officials continue to invest in public education for our students to continue the academic progress they’ve made over the past 10 years and learn in a safe, supportive environment.’’
PSEA created an online toolkit with more information and resources about bullying for members and parents. Visit www.psea.org/bullying to find ways that you can help address the problems of bullying in your school or district.