By Polly Keary, Editor
More than 1,200 people have joined a Facebook page started just a week ago by a Sultan teen to raise the issue of bullying after a loved one, a Sultan Middle School student, attempted suicide.
On the page, dozens of comments from all over the state indicated that bullying is a problem at many schools, including those in the Sky Valley.
According to Sky Valley students, educators and parents, bullying today follows age-old patterns of singling out children who are disadvantaged, physically different from the majority in some way, or from minority demographics.
Schools in recent years have taken new measures to combat bullying, and today more resources than ever are available to kids in and out of school.
But as the case in Sultan makes very clear, the problem remains serious, and difficult to address.
Who gets bullied and how
When Miranda Zucati, a senior at Monroe High School, was named Miss Plus America Teen Ambassador last year, she used the title as a platform to talk to other kids nationwide about teen suicide.
She chose that message because she had a loved one who battled suicidal thoughts as a teen. To Zucati, the issue of teen suicide and bullying are closely linked.
“I’ve been bullied,” she said. “I know that it is something that plays a huge factor in teen suicide.”
She had endured bullying because of her weight, to the extent that she stopped attending Monroe High School for a year and took classes at home instead.
Zucati said that it had started for her in middle school.
“I used to not want to go to school,” she said. “I would come home every day crying.”
In the eighth grade, involvement in sports improved her situation.
“But once I got to high school, it started all over and I feel like it was worse,” she said. “It tore me apart.”
Once a girl stole her backpack and cell phone, and got caught when she used the phone to take pictures and send them to her email. Some kids left cruel messages on her Facebook page, forcing her to block some users from her site. Taunts were a daily occurrence. Finally, she called her mother crying from the bathroom and said she wanted to drop out. Ultimately, she left the school and spent her junior year studying at home through the Washington Virtual Academy.
This year, buoyed by her national pageant title, Zucati returned to Monroe High School.
But other kids continue to experience harassment in middle and high school.
And according to students and parents, the kids who are harassed tend to be those who, for some reason, don’t fit into the mainstream.
Holly Tiege has two daughters in Monroe High School who have no social problems at school, as they are both fairly typical in their development and interests.
But her fifth-grade son has had a different experience.
He has been harassed because his mother is gay. And he also has some special needs.
“He has kind of like Asperger’s,” said Tiege. “He has high anxiety and he lacks some social skills.”
While most of the kids at school are very supportive, the young man struggles with social rejection and subtle acts of cruelty from some.
“On the playground there’s quite a bit, mostly in the form of exclusion from activities,” said Tiege. “They say ‘We don’t want to play with you because you’re weird,’ and they call him a nerd, because he’s in the chess club and the choir and wants to play the flute.”
One woman said her 11-year-old is targeted for his learning disability in the Sultan School District.
People who don’t fit into a clique tend to be the ones who get bullied, said Cierra Mattern, 14, president of the ASB at Park Place MIddle School.
While she said she doesn’t think bullying is at crisis level in her school, she said it does happen.
“I see teasing around the school; some of it can get out of hand,” she said. “People are nice to people until they think they are weird, and don’t fit into a category.”
Often it’s kids from homes with less money who are targeted, or kids who are street-involved, she said. And sometimes there is some tension between ethnic groups, too, she added.
While in middle and high school in Sultan, one recent student said, she was openly harassed.
“At 15, I remember during class I’d walk down the row of desks and get called nasty names and be laughed at,” said Kendra Howard, now 20.
But bullying is often far more insidious than that.
The anonymity of the internet has created opportunities to hurt kids without consequence.
“It gives the bully a way to feel more safe,” said Mattern. “They can post in a post, saying ‘I hate it when people do this,’ and you know who they are talking about.”
And kids gossip about each other, sometimes hurtfully, some said.
“I remember my best friend spreading a rumor that I was pregnant and then got an abortion,” Howard said in a Facebook post on the topic.
Bullying can include spreading cruel rumors, pointedly excluding kids from activities or groups; prank calls; hurtful social media posts; cruel remarks; staring as a group; ridicule; avoiding a child in places such as the lunch room or on the bus; pushing; using homophobic, racist or demeaning slurs; taunting a child over things like weight or poverty; physically intimidating a child; demanding possessions or money and physical threat or assault.
Impacts of bullying on children
The impact of bullying on kids can be far-reaching, said former special education teacher Annie Redd, now a marriage and family therapist with a practice in Monroe.
“Kids who are bullied miss school a lot, grades decline, and loss of friends may occur from a lack of interest in social activities,” she said. “Emotionally, kids feel helpless, a decreased self esteem, increased anxiety and/or depression. Physical symptoms include sleep issues like nightmares or extreme tiredness from lack of sleep and headaches and stomachaches occur to get out of going to school or school activities where they are being bullied. Extreme results of kids being bullied may be running away from home, harming oneself, and talking of suicide.”
The statistics are sobering.
In the United States, about 16 percent of kids report being bullied and about 20 percent bully others, with bullying behavior peaking at about the 7th grade level, according to a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
In a study of about 15,000 middle school students, victims of bullying tended to be lonelier and have poorer school attendance rates; kids miss about 160,000 school days a year out of fear of bullying, according to an ABC News study.
Tiege said that is a reality in her own home.
“It’s to where my son doesn’t want to go to school,” she said. “He’ll try to get sick so he has to get picked up. It can be quite disabling. It’s disruptive to his educational experience.”
Bullied kids grow up to be bullied adults, too; one study showed that 40 percent of bullied kids continued to experience harassment into adulthood in college and in the workplace, and that bullied kids have difficulty later in life establishing boundaries and standing up for themselves.
More alarmingly, there is a strong correlation between bullying and teen suicide. About half of all bulled kids report thinking of suicide, and about half of all youth suicide attempts are related to bullying.
In all, about 4,400 children die of suicide every year, and though studies show that mental health issues factor greatly in those cases, bullying is a factor in about half.
Sometimes bullied kids in turn become bullies themselves. And of 15 shooters in the school shootings of the 1990s, 12 had a history of having been bullied.
Outcomes for children who bully are serious, as well. One study showed that one in four children who bullied others had a prison record by the age of 30. And although recent studies show that bullies, counter to conventional wisdom, usually have normal to high self-esteem and large social groups, a significant fraction in later life tend toward risky behaviors such as drugs and crime.
What schools are doing
In recent years in Sky Valley schools, students and faculty alike have made efforts to combat bullying. A group of high school students in the Monroe School District raised money to bring in an anti-bullying program called “The Power of One,” and the district has brought in “Rachel’s Challenge” and other anti-bullying and suicide prevention programs to the schools.
Rachel’s Challenge has been a popular repeat program in Sultan, too.
“We have done it at the high school a number of years and the middle school this year,” said Sultan Superintendent Dan Chaplik, who encouraged anyone with concerns about student safety to contact him at the district office. “This is an all-of-us issue.”
In Monroe and Sultan schools, students have several ways to ask for help.
The school districts use SafeSchoolsAlert, a tip reporting system that allows people to report concerns via phone, text, email or on a website. For numbers and links, see www.monroe.wednet.edu/PAGES/safety.html for Monroe and http://www.sultan.k12.wa.us/ssd/ssd.cfm?id=197 for Sultan schools.
Monroe kids also can fill out an anonymous form and drop it in a box.
Through those avenues, or just by going to the office, children can ask for help with a specific situation, or just make the staff aware that something is going on and ask for more vigilance.
The Monroe School District has a compliance officer whose job it is to address every report.
“All reports are taken very seriously and fully investigated,” said district spokesperson Rosemary O’Neil. “Sometimes it’s two friends that have had a falling out, and sometimes it’s more serious, and families are involved as school staff try to mediate.”
Consequences for kids who bully in either district, according to school policy pages, can range from counseling to discipline to law enforcement referrals.
“The culture we try to create is not bullying, and when it does happen we try to deal with it,” said Chaplik.
Reviews on the efforts of schools are mixed. Some angry parents reported that they felt staff at either district ignored their concerns.
Parents in both districts also reported good experiences.
“The staff, when they know about it, are very responsive,” said Tiege.
But enforcing bullying laws can be very difficult, even impossible.
Much bullying is very hard to prove.
“It’s extremely difficult in the absence of documentation that there’s a problem,” said Tiege. “The district wants to help, but it’s not provable. You can’t prove that someone said something to another child unless someone overheard it.”
And studies have shown that educators on the whole aren’t very good at identifying and intervening in bullying situations.
Children are often reluctant to report bullying, too.
“Usually, teachers, they teach you confront the bully, but you find one in five who will actually do it,” said Mattern, who is currently in the eighth grade.
And, she added, while anti-bullying rallies and films are effective in the short term, if not sustained, the impact soon fades.
“The next week they fall back into the same routine,” she said.
What parents can do
Children with involved, observant parents have an advantage, experts say.
Signs that a child is being bullied may include having belongings, especially those of value, go missing; frequent complaints of illness and requests to stay home or come home early; a lack of a social life and friends; a sudden drop in grades; anxiety; frequent crying; sleep disturbances and nightmares; and physical problems such as sleeplessness, stomachaches and headaches.
Parents who notice those things should make every effort to find out what is going on.
If a parent learns that a child is being harassed at school, there are several ways to help, said therapist Annie Redd.
“If a child is being bullied, provide them with the adult support they need to help them feel safe: school administration, teachers, counselors at the school itself. Be an advocate for your child if need be, to help the bullying stop not only for your child, but others who feel helpless.”
Repairing your child’s confidence and sense of self worth is key.
“Find a mental health professional for therapy and support to increase self esteem, strong personal identity and boundaries, and repair the anxiety and/or depression due to the bullying,” said Redd.
Many experts recommend advising kids to “walk, talk and squawk.”
That involves walking away from situations rather than engaging, as bullies tend to enjoy getting a reaction, and telling the bullies to stop, as bullies frequently choose victims who won’t defend themselves. To “squawk” means to alert trusted adults about the problem, whether it be a teacher, pastor, parent or mentor.
There are a variety of educational opportunities for children who are having consistent problems with bullies when intervention is not successful, ranging from alternative schools like Leaders in Learning and the Sky Valley Educational Center, to homeschool and online options, to switching schools or even districts.
And, Redd added, community action matters, too.
“Help the victims gain strength and hopefulness through safety committee groups or campaigns against bullying,” she suggested.
In both Sultan and Monroe, the community is involved.
In Monroe, a public information session on school safety, including safety from bullying, was planned for Monday.
In Sultan, more than 100 people gathered for a candlelight vigil Sunday evening to express support for the student, who is still seriously ill from his suicide attempt, and to stand up against bullying.
And the Sultan School District will keep looking for ways to create a culture in which bullying doesn’t happen, said Superintendent Dan Chaplik. For now, though, students and staff are still stunned and saddened, he said.
“Our thoughts are with the young man and the family,” he said. “There are a lot of students and staff who are hurting right now.”