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Stopping the bully cycle

Published: Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT
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Kyle Bursaw — kbursaw@shawmedia.com Liza Vega, an eighth grade leader in Huntley Middle School's 'Where Everybody Belongs' group, hands out invitations to a tailgate the group in the sixth grade hallway after school on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012.
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Kyle Bursaw — kbursaw@shawmedia.com Officer Jose Jaques answers a question about where students can find him while introducing himself to Kari Colvin's sixth grade math class at Huntley Middle School on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012. Jaques serves as the school resource officer for Huntley and Clinton-Rosette middle schools. Jaques says he tries to get in time talking with students, whether during lunch or in an occasional lesson in social studies class, so they will be comfortable in approaching him if the need arises.

DeKALB – When a bullying incident comes to Tim Vincent’s attention, he and the staff at Clinton Rosette Middle School try to take a creative approach to the problem.

“Some kids, we can stop the bullying if we have them create a PowerPoint about the evils of bullying,” said Vincent, principal at Clinton Rosette in DeKalb. “Some kids, we can prevent it from happening again if we bring their parents in and we have a big conference.”

Vincent’s goal for his school’s “zero-tolerance” policy on bullying is to ensure that the offending student never bullies another person. Discipline, he added, is not about avenging the victim.

Illinois law requires school districts to have policies on bullying, which must be updated every two years and filed with the Illinois State Board of Education. With every situation being different, school officials can respond to bullying in different ways.

“Each time an allegation of bullying is brought to you, you have to take each case on its own,” said Aaron Osbourne, a dean of students at DeKalb High School.

When police get involved also depends on the situation. DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott said they get involved “if the law is involved.” His office deals with only Indian Creek High School in Shabbona, but other schools are monitored by their respective police departments.

When he is brought in on a bullying matter, Ryan Goodman, a Sycamore police detective and school resource officer for Sycamore School District 427, said he tries to identify who and what caused the problem.

“At this level, education of the laws is what we try to teach first,” Goodman said. He added that for the students, realizing the situation has become a criminal matter often is a wake-up call.

If a situation is serious enough, or if the student is a repeat offender, Goodman said the bully can be charged.

What can make punishing bullying tricky, Osbourne said, is the revelation that both students are participating in inappropriate behaviors. Andrea Monroe, the associate director of the DeKalb County Youth Service Bureau, said sometimes bullying goes unnoticed until a victim lashes out at their tormentor.

Monroe agreed with the sentiment that each situation needs to be handled on a case-by-case basis.

“Every kid is different, and different kids are being bullied for different reasons,” Monroe said. “There is no one solution.”

Both Clinton Rosette and Huntley middle schools have implemented a mentoring program called the WEB Program. At each school, a select number of eighth-graders mentor the year’s class of sixth-graders. It’s not an anti-bullying program, but Vincent said it has benefits that can help with the problem.

“We’re hopeful it will have a positive impact on bullying,” Vincent said. “If we can bring a research-based program in here that has shown that students happen to be nicer to each other, or for students to take a leadership role ... that has an indirect effect on bullying.”

CAN ILLINOIS DO BETTER?

Although the state gets high marks for its bullying prevention efforts, there are some who argue that they could do better. The Bully Police, a national watchdog organization that reports states’ anti-bullying laws, gave Illinois an A-minus rating.

The high grade means that Illinois meets much of the criteria for successful bullying prevention laws according to the organization’s standards, said Brenda High, founder of the Bully Police.

High said Illinois’ A-minus means the state has a clearly defined bullying law, offers recommendations on how to enforce said laws, and addresses cyberbullying. Vincent said although online incidents might be outside their jurisdiction, the school can still address the situation with the bully.

“We can still ... be proactive so that they don’t bring that stuff to school,” Vincent said, adding that schools cannot afford to turn a blind eye to cyberbullying because it can affect a student’s well-being.

Keeping the state from a perfect score, High said, was a lack of programs for bullied children and clearly defined reporting criteria.

“A good law involves school administration on all levels,” High said.

A stricter statewide anti-bullying legislation failed in May amid conservative groups’ fears that it would indoctrinate students and embrace homosexuality. The bill, House Bill 5290, was sponsored by state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, an openly gay lawmaker.

As it is written now, Illinois’ law “lacks uniformity and responsibility on all schools districts,” Cassidy said. “In my opinion, a one-line policy is not one.”

Osbourne and Scott, however, feel that the best weapon to combat bullying is to educate people so they’re aware of it.

“I don’t think there’s much more the state can do,” Scott said.

SYSTEMIC CHANGE

In order for bullying to be stopped, there needs to be a systemic change in how people think about it, said Toni Tollerud, a presidential teaching professor, and Charles Myers, an assistant professor. Both of them research and teach counseling at Northern Illinois University’s College of Education, and both have worked as counselors.

Tollerud said bullying involves three people: The bully, the victim, and the bystander who witnesses the bullying happen.

“Often times, I don’t think we’ve done enough to educate the bystander,” Tollerud said.

To stop people from being bystanders, they need to empathize with the victim, Myers said. When he’s working with adults, Myers asks them to think about when they were bullied.

“I’ll ask them how they feel at this moment,” Myers said. “And they said they feel tense ... afraid ... they have a physical reaction to something that happened 20 or 30 years ago. When we start to make that connection, then I think people start to realize that maybe I can do something.”

Tollerud said that education can empower students to stop bullying when they see it. Monroe expressed similar sentiments. She said she tells students to say “Can you stop that?” if they are being bullied.

Myers and Tollerud don’t believe bullying is a part of growing up. Tollerud said bullying is part of a continuum of violence that can spiral out of control if the bully does not learn that people are hurt by his or her actions.

“We need to teach our children to stop this cycle, because bullying is something that’s taught,” Myers said. “We’re not born into this world bullying people.”

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