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Starting points: Bullies product of their environment

Bullies aren’t born. They’re made.

Sometimes, bullies are people who have been bullied themselves, said Karen White, director of the Psychological Services Center at Northern Illinois University.

“There’s a significant subset of bullies who are also bullied – the kids who have been mistreated and mistreat others to gain a sense of control,” White said.

That’s only one reason children turn into bullies, she said. Bullies come with a certain set of characteristics that tend to fuel their actions, such as aggressiveness or assertiveness. In general, White said children who bully others tend to not have very good relationships with peers.

“They’re socially dominant and powerful, but not really well-liked,” she said. “They tend to not have close friends.”

Shannon Underwood, psychotherapist and program manager for the child and adolescent team at Ben Gordon Center, echoed White’s description. She said bullies can have extreme self-esteem and control issues.

Underwood worked with students about two years ago at Genoa-Kingston Middle School, where she met with a group of bullies and a group of students who were bullied. She said she spoke with one “queen bee” bully and several intermediate bullies who occasionally jumped on the bandwagon.

Underwood said the “queen bee” bully usually couldn’t handle her emotions when confronted.

“It was so difficult for them to deal with,” she said.

After doing research with the groups, she found that those behaviors – especially relational aggressions, such as socially excluding someone or talking behind someone’s back – were often learned from parents or other influential adults.

White also said the problem can start at home. Some children who bully others may have been raised in homes where they’re encouraged to be somewhat aggressive and attend to what they want first instead of what others want. Other bullies have low empathy – a learned skill that gives someone the ability to read someone’s face or body cues.

Bullies have somewhat low self-esteem, White said, and may feel the need to be a bully when they feel the threat of being bullied.

Bullies may also come from a home environment where they don’t feel safe and feel the need to be at the top of a social situation. They may also be people who have never been taught by adults how to show empathy and sympathy, or have never been treated with respect and don’t know how to show it to others.

There’s a difference between a true bully and someone who is perceived to be a bully, White said. For example, a socially-skilled, dominant child can joke with someone and realize that it hurts someone’s feelings and immediately back off or apologize.

Bullying in schools

Underwood said DeKalb County schools have bullying policies in place, and they’re all different. Some have what are called “bully boxes,” while others allow students to report harassment anonymously online.

“Every middle school has bullying no matter what you do,” said counselor Robin Enders of Clinton Rosette Middle School in DeKalb. “You do everything you can to be proactive.”

Clinton Rosette installed a bully box four years ago after Huntley Middle School had success with it. Enders said depending on the week or time of the year, the bully box gets between none and five to six complaints in a given week, and students can remain anonymous when they fill out bully report forms available throughout the school.

Jen Gammelgaard, another school counselor at Clinton Rosette, said that’s just one piece of the puzzle. They try to make contact with the person who made the report within 24 hours and try to figure out a plan. They work through reports by trying to find and interview witnesses and encourage students to report to the nearest teacher if no one is around.

Underwood said the challenge with implementing bullying policies in schools is that bullying often happens under the radar.

“A lot of times, bullying happens so inadvertently,” she said. “If you can’t see it, you can’t do anything about it.”

Today, a lot of bullying happens through Facebook and cellphones, which keeps it out of plain sight. It’s also very difficult to manage every single child.

Karen Simmons, director of student services for Genoa-Kingston School District 424, said district officials follow up with every single report of bullying they receive through various means, including their online bully report form that allows complainants to remain anonymous.

The district focuses on encouraging positive behavior instead of reminding students about all the negative aspects of bullying. Simmons said Illinois is one of a handful of states with Positive Behavior Intervention Support, or PBIS, the program in place at the district.

Establishing expectations

To help prevent bullying, Clinton Rosette spends 20 minutes each week learning social and emotional skills, which range from setting goals for the academic year to bullying. Enders said the school tries to continually keep behavior expectations at the forefront.

“If we don’t teach kids what our expectations are, we can’t expect them to meet them,” she said.

White stressed that although students need constant reminders about what behavior is appropriate and what’s not, bystanders need to be taught to intervene and socially-skilled children can set examples by helping other students who have been bullied or are perceived as weak.

Mary Hess, asset specialist with the DeKalb County Keep Encouraging Youth to Succeed Initiative, said the goal of DeKalb County Youth Service Providers Network is to get the community involved with ending bullying outside of school, too.

The group is in the planning phase of launching an educational series that may include teaching people to take the “upstander” approach, and stand up for someone who is being mistreated.

Genoa-Kingston’s PBIS program works with students at all grade levels to get them on the same page and thoroughly understand what it means be respectful, responsible and safe.

“When students know what’s expected of them, it’s amazing how they can rise to those expectations,” Simmons said.

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