Beware the school bully

Students clog the courtyard at the Langley Middle School between classes. The school has cut down on passing times in recent years to reduce bullying.  - Gayle Saran
Students clog the courtyard at the Langley Middle School between classes. The school has cut down on passing times in recent years to reduce bullying.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

The schoolyard bully is no longer the roughneck who attacks his victims behind the school or off school grounds, out of sight of teachers.

Today, bullying behavior runs the gamut from physical abuse to glares carrying unspoken threats. It can be subtle and difficult to identify.

Sometimes it's so understated that the bully himself doesn't know he is intimidating someone. It takes someone else to point out the behavior.

That's what happened to Langley Middle School eighth-grader Lakota Holder. His parents made him aware of his bullying early in his school days.

"They talked to me when I was very young because of the way I was acting," Holder said. "I was picking on someone."

Ken Wong, an anti-bullying educator who came to the middle school last week, explained to 25 parents how easy it is to miss the signs of bullying. Meeting in the school's auxiliary gymnasium Oct. 22, the group learned from Wong that bullying can start with a thoughtless snub, a biting insult or the reckless use of slang. It is an attempt, Wong said, to exclude or provoke another person. Sometimes, it includes intimidation by physical size.

These behaviors can be every bit as hurtful to students as a physical attack, Wong said.

"Bullying is harassment in many forms," he said.

Wong, an educator and supervisor at the Violence Intervention Program for Youth Eastside Services in Bellevue, came to South Whidbey to help adults and teens learn to prevent violence on the community and school level. Reducing bullying is a major component of that.

Though the extent of fighting and bullying is not great at LMS, according to school administration and some students, Wong's talk drew an interested turnout. For Polly Schmitt, a Langley resident and mother of a middle school daughter and a high school son, the evening program with Wong was "a real eye opener."

"The main point for me was how subtle bullying can be," she said. "Most parents, including myself, think of it as pushing and hitting and ignore its more subtle forms like exclusion and verbal harassment."

She said the program let her know that she needs to ask her children pointed questions and talk about the interactions they are having with other students if she thinks something is wrong.

"Kids won't talk about the pain or hurt of exclusion, it's embarrassing," Schmitt said.

Wong told his audience there are signs to watch for. A child who lacks a healthy school social life could be experiencing bullying. Excluded from normal student life, their self esteem can be affected, he said.

The conversation was as much for parents as it was for school staff, who are in a better position to identify bullying than parents. Tim Gordon, the assistant principal at the middle school, said bullying has many different faces.

"There is a difference between true bullies and bullying behavior," he said. "Bullies are people who practice aggressive behavior over time and with intent"

Gordon said LMS doesn't have many "true bullies." But when they do show up, school staff does its best to discourage them. He said the best deterrent is limiting bullying opportunities by cutting down on the amount of time students spend together during passing times or lunch.

Gordon says the middle school is planning on an educational program for students to make them more aware of the different aspects of bullying.

The school brings the parents of bullies in to talk about the behavior, and will go as far as trying to teach anger management to bullies.

Gordon said the school also gives a good deal of attention to the victims.

"We try to teach them not to act or respond like a victim," he said. "We never bring the victim and the bully together."

As for actual violence, Gordon said he rarely sees fighting at the school.

"In truth, junior high school boys don't want to fight," he said. "There is a lot of posturing with a big setup where the student is actually saying 'stop me' before the fight starts."

Another action that must be avoided, Wong said, is a confrontation between a bully and the parents of his victim.

"That can be embarrassing or a set-up for more abuse," he said.

But what he did encourage was giving students the tools with which to negotiate on their own behalf.

Eighth grader Holder does some of that for his school mates.

"I will step in if I see someone being excluded or ignored," he said. "I don't like to see someone else's feelings hurt."

Wong said that above all, parents should not tolerate bullying behavior from their children.

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