Stopping Bullies Before They Start

John recently suffered a concussion and other injuries in a fight with a schoolmate who for months had taunted a friend, and who in turn then targeted him. “I was fed up,” said the 15-year-old south county high school student, explaining a decision to confront his tormentor despite a disadvantage in height and weight.

Bullying may not be a new phenomenon, but the advent of cyber bullying and news-making stories of teens driven to suicide following persecution by their peers provoke renewed determination on the part of school administrators to prevent it.

The recent release of Lee Hirsch’s film “Bully” adds to the dialogue by documenting the plights of five bullied teens and underscores the behavior’s sometimes dire consequences.

While studies show awareness does not solve problems, anti-bullying behavior strategies are in use in all four Laguna Beach public schools and incidents of bullying behavior are declined over the past three years, according to Nancy Hubbell, assistant superintendent of instructional services.

At Thurston Middle School 24 incidents were reported last year, a 50 percent drop from the 57 reported two years before, she said. Both elementary schools reported fewer than 10 incidents annually. The high school recorded the most dramatic change: two incidents so far this year, compared to 12 in the previous school year.

Those figures echo findings by the National Center for Education Statistics showing that the percentage of students who report “being afraid of attack or harm at school” declined to 4 percent from 12 percent between 1995 and 2009.

Asked whether informing administrators would help with his friend’s bullying problem, John, who prefers to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of his story, said he didn’t see an advantage initially. He figured telling would just make his friend look bad and he didn’t figure discipline would prevent the bully from trying again.

Teachers and administrators are keenly aware of the need to actively supervise students by praising good behavior and attempting to head off potential bad behavior, Hubbell said. Students are more likely to seek help from adults when they have a history of positive interactions with them, she said.

Laguna’s anti-bullying tactic is embedded in the district’s approach that fosters a culture of expected social and academic conventions. Known as PBIS for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, it outlines clear expectations for student behavior in the classroom and out. It also gives teachers a structure to track behavior and suggests ways to reward good acts and intervene when witnessing inappropriate ones.  Positive reinforcement has proven much more effective than punishment, said Hubbell.

The PBIS approach took affect two years ago at the high school and was rolled out at other district schools several years earlier with slight variations by campus. For example, El Morro students embrace the mantra: respect, responsibility and kindness. They learn the importance of keeping old friends, making new ones and including others, as bullies often target students who are ostracized and alone. A second mantra — stop, talk and walk – instills coping skills. First, tell an offender to stop; second, try to resolve conflict by talking; and, if that doesn’t work, walk away to cool down and ask an adult for assistance.

Unbeknownst to him, John followed a similar strategy, though with his own rules. Taunting of his friend prompted John to step in even though the bully then turned the barbs against him. John retaliated, unleashing his own verbal assault, but one day he admitted to reaching his tipping point when the bully pushed him. John punched back, ultimately taking the worst of the beating. Both boys were suspended.

Afterwards, the bullying escalated to the point where John’s friend also readied for a fight. Administrators got wind of it and promised to stop it. Eventually, the bullying stopped.

John believes that having friends tipped the scales. “I personally think they are leaving my friend alone because they know now that he’s not alone and people will be there to support him even though he doesn’t have any support at home,” he said.

At Thurston and the high school, PALS, or peer-assisted leaders, provide a bulwark against bullies, stepping in to ensure that new students do not become loners. Thurston students also receive credits for exemplary behavior toward their peers, earning them prizes and special privileges.

Rachel’s Challenge at Top of the World encourages inclusion and empathy by rewarding students for acts of kindness.

LBHS embraces the PRIDE mantra: Problem solve, be Resilient, show Integrity, be Dependable, remain Engaged. Each department teaches, monitors, and reinforces these behaviors, which have undercut incidents of bullying, said Assistant Principal Gretchen Ernsdorf.

In acknowledging parents’ role in shaping behavior, administrators generally host presentations on bullying or cyber bullying each year, such as last May’s workshop focused on students’ use of Facebook.

“We are very passionate about this,” said Assistant Principal Bob Billinger, adding that the talks have proved popular and provoked lively discussions. “It takes all of us to raise a child,” he said.

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