FORT LEE, VA (Feb. 3, 2011) -"It’s an old problem with new twists," said Prince George County Police Officer John E. Pearson Jr., when asked to discuss the issue of bullying in our schools.
"At a base level, it’s the same situation we dealt with as kids," he said. "Boys fight about girls and girls fight about boys; you have stuff I don’t, so you’re my enemy – that sort of thing. The real difference is technology. When I was in high school, fights were limited to the witnesses on hand. Now, with camera and video phones, the whole school knows and kids are watching it on YouTube and Facebook."
"Cyber-bullying" is a burgeoning tactic for Generation Y, Pearson noted. Today’s smart phones and social media have replaced yesterday’s bathroom stalls and battles behind the schoolhouse. With the click of a mouse, a bully can go viral with a campaign of harassment.
According to survey results detailed in a recent i-Safe report, roughly half of adolescent and teen participants admitted to being bullied online and about the same number said they engaged in cyber-bullying. The study further concluded one in three young people have been threatened online. More than 25 percent of adolescents and teens report they have been bullied repeatedly through their cell phone or the Internet, and more than half do not tell their parents when cyber-bullying occurs.
To counter the problem, grade school administrators and community youth groups across the country are adjusting their anti-bullying programs almost as quickly as new issues arise. Virginia lawmakers are taking a stand as well. They’re updating the five current laws and introducing new legislation like the "Anti-Bullying Responsibility Act," which would add specificity to the mandated codes of student conduct for state school districts and require schools to have procedures in place to separate victims from bullies, among other specifications.
To encourage greater discussion and understanding of the problem, the Virginia School Board Association declared January as Bullying Prevention Month. The stated goal is to empower schools and parents to end childhood harassment.
"The entire education community – school board members, superintendents, teachers and parents – can play a critical role in creating a climate where bullying is not tolerated," a VSBA spokesperson said. "It has been proven when adults and children stand together, bullying ends."
Schools across the commonwealth have embraced the movement, creating age-related programs that encourage and reward harmony in the hallways. Prince George County Schools – the district that includes Fort Lee – adopted the VSBA state model for a student code of conduct and definitions for bullying, said Director of Secondary Education, Larry Eminhizer.
"Each of our schools has an individual program created by administrators and counselors," he said.
For example, the guidance departments at the county’s elementary schools work with individuals and groups of students to identify the issues of bullying and why it’s counterproductive to educational environments.
"All the elementary schools here implement a Character Counts program," said Dr. Sharon M. O’Neill, principal at David A. Harrison Elementary. "We conduct four Character Counts Assemblies each school year. We feature skits, video streaming, songs and poems that target the character value being stressed. All the character traits can be interwoven with anti-bullying strategies as well as cognition of the what, when and where of bullying."
O’Neill added that many of the local schools are looking to enhance and strategize programs that are more directly applicable to addressing bullying in today’s society.
Prince George’s current student population is 6,119 at five elementary schools, one middle school, one junior high school and one high school. During the two previous school years, a total of 14 incidents of bullying were reported. That represents about .25 percent of the student population, but the school readily admits that many bullying incidents go unreported.
In Chesterfield County, one of the largest school districts in Virginia, most elementary and middle schools use a comprehensive anti-bullying program developed by counselors and based on the county’s core values.
Shawn Smith, a spokesman for Chesterfield Schools, said the district takes seriously its duty to provide all students with a quality education in a safe, supportive learning environment.
"Our bullying prevention efforts and programs are ultimately tailored to the individual school community," he said. "Our school counselors lead many of the bullying prevention efforts and proactive programs to prevent bullying and develop social skills."
The reported statistics – 522 bullying incidents in 2008-2009 and 211 in 2009-2010 – show the pay-off of diligence and innovative approaches in Chesterfield schools. Yet bullying remains a serious issue, and the schools dedicated class time in January to discussions, programs and events that teach tolerance and discourage hostility.
Last year, the departments of Education and Health and Human Services joined with other federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, to create a federal task force on bullying. In August the task force held its first national bullying summit to bring an end to harassment and once overlooked as a rite-of-passage epidemic.
"It’s important for all parents to be vigilant and to ask their children how things are going in school," said Barbara Thompson, director of the Pentagon’s office of family policy. "Create an open forum where a child feels comfortable to say ‘I’m scared’ or ‘I don’t like the way I am being treated.’"
Fort Lee families have a very important education advocate in the community, the CYSS school liaison officer. One of the primary missions of the SLO is to serve as a link between the U.S. military community and local school districts. The SLO can be a valuable resource for military parents who have questions or issues related to their child’s education.
"Even though I do not play a direct role in helping to prevent or to resolve bullying in the schools, my door is always open to parents, students and educators who need assistance," said Nancy Elzie, CYSS SLO. "If a parent brings an issue to me that sounds like bullying, I refer them to the guidance department at the child’s school. There they can speak with educators and counselors who have been trained to address issues related to bullying."
This is the second installment of a Traveller feature series addressing the issue of school bullying. The first article is posted on the newspaper website www.fortleetraveller.com. The final installment next week will focus on CYSS programs that promote cooperation and the functions of the SLO.