SYCAMORE – Alyssa Pawola does not see much truth in the old “sticks and stones” phrase.
Because words can hurt, she said, and as past history has shown, words can even drive someone to take their own life.
Whether it is a 13-year-old Missouri girl hanging herself after being cyberbullied by the mother of a classmate or a Rutgers University freshman jumping off the George Washington Bridge in New York City after a secretly recorded video of him kissing a man is posted on the Internet, the new age of bullying can have deadly consequences.
Pawola, who is in her first year as a social worker at Sycamore High School, said there are new challenges in addressing bullying as technology constantly changes and makes the situation a 24/7 worry for victims who have a harder time avoiding the attacks.
“It’s happening quicker. You can send a mass text or a picture in an instant, and it becomes so public,” she said. “And while a lot of it happens outside of school, it follows them to school when they see that person in the halls.”
Tim Carlson, principal of Sycamore High School, is grateful the fatal consequences of bullying have not been seen in the community, but he said he knows bullying exists everywhere and requires a constant, community effort to control.
“People can’t ignore it and pretend it’s not happening,” Carlson said. “We have a ton of great parents here that are willing to step in, which helps eliminate some of the problems. Having that communication is very important.”
But the problem, Carlson said, is that bullying is becoming harder to see because students use social media and fake identities to attack.
What is bullying?
Defining what constitutes bullying can be a challenge, said Shahran Spears, principal of Brooks Elementary School in DeKalb.
She said as bullying has gained more attention in popular culture, it is important to not water down the term and mistake natural conflicts that can be an important learning experience for students with systematic, deliberate acts against someone because of differences such as race, gender or disabilities.
“It can be really hard to gauge,” she said. “Between media and everyday vernacular, the definition of bullying seems to be different every year.”
Researchers traditionally have defined bullying as a repeated pattern of aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power and purposefully inflicts hardship or harm on those who are bullied.
Leading bullying research indicates that there are serious and long-term consequences to bullying, such as increased depression, substance abuse, aggressive impulses and school truancy.
To help students identify and address the differences between annoying behavior and bullying, Spears said the school uses the Stop, Walk and Talk program, which is an anti-bullying program used through DeKalb School District 428.
Spears said students are taught to motion to the agitator to stop if the teasing or annoying behavior begins to escalate. If the behavior does not stop, she said the student should then walk away and attempt to end the situation. If the behavior still continues, Spears said it is likely bullying and the student should get an adult and talk about the situation.
“If a student follows those steps, they are giving you an opportunity to check yourself,” Spears said. “It’s about teaching self-advocacy skill and maintaining a sense of confidence about yourself.”
Spears said the district also attempts to define and explain bullying through different books and lessons. She said she spent some of the first week visiting every classroom and reading the book “One” by Kathryn Otoshi, which explains bullying and how to stand up to it.
“We all have to learn how to advocate for ourselves,” she said. “It makes a difference if you start early.”
Are we overreacting?
With bullying thrust into the national dialogue, some are asking – is society overreacting? Is normal childhood behavior being labeled as bullying?
Colleen Bredeson, a mother of three children in DeKalb School District 428, said it is possible for schools to overreact, but praised the district for handling situations well in her experience. Bredeson said every conflict needs to be viewed on a case-by-case basis so consequences remain more severe for bullying than for minor spats.
“Kids will be kids, and sometimes they have to work it out on their own,” she said. “If schools viewed every conflict as bullying, school would be all about refereeing arguments.”
Curtis Swartzendruber, a senior at Sycamore High School, said it is important to monitor seemingly smaller incidents because of the constant access students have to one another through online social networking. He said comments and pictures on Facebook or Twitter for all the world to see can have devastating effects.
“When you have that screen in front of you and you see those Facebook fights, those are way worse,” he said. “So many more people can see what is happening.”
Teachers also said labeling the national attention on bullying as an overreaction would be dangerous because it would only deter students from asking for help when they need it.
Michael Rice, an English teacher at Sycamore High School, said teachers have become an important outlet for students to talk about problems because there are only three counselors on staff for 1,200 students.
But teachers are not able to see the bullying that takes place, making their reaction and empathy toward students that much more important.
“They’re not going to [bully classmates] right in front of a teacher,” Rice said. “We have to do the best we can with what we do see in the classroom and help them find the right person to talk to.”
Maryellen Spicer, a counselor at Sycamore High School, said not reacting strongly enough to bullying is what leads to some of the tragedies that have been reported in recent years. Playing off a student’s troubles as not a big deal is the last thing a student should ever hear.
“The resolution to [bullying] is the same now as it has always been,” Spicer said. “You have to build a trusting and caring relationship with the student and let them know they always have someone there for them.”