The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

January 29, 2011

The problem with bullies

Involvement essential at all levels to put a stop to bullying

By Violet Hassler, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID — “A bully is aware of the emotional impact they are having on a person and they derive an emotional satisfaction.” — Dr. Stephen Close, Ph.D, clinical psychologist

When asked to define bullying, one is hard put to offer a singular definition. Most purse their lips and wrinkle foreheads at first, making evident the thought processes under way to determine the best answer.

There are lists of bullying techniques, there are buzz words in which to refer, but the essence of the word — as everyone who ever has been on the receiving end of a bully knows — is extremely personal.

No one has to tell young Kaylin what it means to bully.

The Enid middle school student “got mad” and “stormed off” after she learned her seemingly nice friends offered her candy one day.

“It was either stepped on or spit on,” she said, with anger as evident as a thundercloud crossing a porcelain face, strikingly framed by her dark hair.

She spit the next words between teeth that were clenched: “Only they didn’t tell me until after I ate it.”

Kaylin said she left in a huff, but what she really wanted to do was “throw the gum in their faces.”

“I think,” she said, calmer now, thoughtful, “I dealt with it the best way I could.”

The way in which a victim deals with a bully can be the key to making it stop and empowering his or her lives, said Close, who has operated a private practice in Enid for nearly 30 years.

In the schools

It starts with Great Expectations in Enid Public Schools, but education on bullying and its prevention doesn’t stop there.

Great Expectations promotes improved student self-esteem, attendance and discipline and parent participation. The age-appropriate program focuses on using “respect” as a teaching tool, said David McCune, director of special services.

“A great deal of emphasis is placed on prevention,” said Amber Graham Fitzgerald, school and community relations director.

It pretty much boils down, school officials said, to using the golden rule: Treat others as you would have them treat you.

“It’s a lot about cheering each other on,” said Lori Leap, school counselor at Adams Elementary School. From there, students develop empathy, which is a key component, professionals agree, to avoid becoming a bully or accepting one in a clique.

Fitzgerald said Great Expectations is only one of the tools used throughout the schools to combat or prevent bullying and harassment.

Workshops, classes and policy all are effective in outlining what will and will not be tolerated at the district.

“Harassment, intimidation and bullying means any gesture, written or verbal expression, electronic communication or physical act that a reasonable person should know will harm another student ...” according to the district’s School Bullying Prevention Act.

Some of what constitutes an act of bullying, according to district policy, may include:

• Verbal, physical or written harassment or abuse.

• Repeated remarks of a demeaning nature.

• Implied or explicit threats concerning one’s grades, achievements, etc.

• Demeaning jokes, stories or activities directed at the student.

• Unwelcome physical contact.

The district also has a policy on cyberbullying that prohibits:

• Threatening e-mails.

• Nasty instant messages.

• Creation of a website to mock others.

• Forwarding private messages, pictures or video to others.

• Stealing another’s identity online.

• Sending messages that contain false, malicious or misleading information that may cause injury to another person or person’s property.

The district may investigate any occurrence reported to involve a student whether or not it originated on school property, said Ruth Ann Erdner, assistant superintendent.

“We do take bullying very seriously,” she said. “It’s why we’ve created policy ... but if it’s not reported to us ... unless we observe it we cannot do anything about it.”

Parental involvement is essential, and Leap says on the elementary level she believes the district is seeing more families involved.

“Safety comes first and foremost,” Erdner said. “We want parents to come to us.”

Oklahoma Department of Education also has a helpline that is free and confidential and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Callers to (877) 723-3225, ext. 651, can remain anonymous. Internet reporting also is available at www.oksafe Erdner said the state then contacts the district with enough information to begin an investigation into any threats of violence or instances of bullying.

The district is prepared, officials said, not only to deal with the perceived threat but to help those students involved.

“We put a lot of resources in the hands of counselors,” said Lisa Ellington, school district psychologist.

“What we often find,” she said, “in working with bullies and victims is a lack of social skills.”

That, said Anita Trojan, Enid High School counselor, becomes more evident on the secondary level, where they do a lot of work with victims.

Nationwide, 44 percent of middle schools report bullying problems, according to 2009 Indicators of School Crime and Safety.

“Sometimes middle school’s really hard to negotiate,” Ellington said, and it is where many of the problems may begin, as children are faced with becoming young adults, and all the physical and emotional changes that come along with that process. “Some of the victims may be entering cliques, and it doesn’t take a lot of difference before students start to notice.”

When it comes to victims, Leap said, a lot of them “seem to lack assertiveness.”

Which is why, district officials agree, it is not only important to deal with the antics of the bully but the reactions of the victim.

“I think most successful programs focus on both people,” Ellington said.

“It goes back to self-esteem,” Trojan said, which sheds light on why programs such as Great Expectations are vital weapons in the fight against bullying.

In the workplace

The playground is not the only place one comes across bullies these days, however, as violence in the workplace are words familiar in human resource department.

ATS Counseling-Focus Institute recently had three referrals in two days regarding violence in the workplace, said Catina Sundvall, an ATS counselor.

“That’s pretty significant when it’s gotten to that point,” said Sundvall, who is licensed as an MCP, LPC.

“It is a problem with the workforce ... when they’re sending them to us for six sessions for anger management,” added ATS director Rebecca Kroeker Livesay, MHR, LPC.

Dan King, manager of training and employee development for AdvancePierre Foods, was on the road — ironically leaving a session about violence in the workplace — when he addressed the topic of bullying and the proactive approach his company takes in attempting to prevent it on all levels.

Although it is not called “bullying” so much in the workplace — “hostile environment,” “violence in the workplace “are preferred terms — it all boils down to codes of conduct and how to treat people, said King, who also is part of Society for Human Resource Management, a group that meets in Enid on a regular basis that periodically deals with this topic.

Employees are encouraged to report any instances of abuse, King said, a statement mirrored by Erdner when it comes to workplace bullying at the schools.

“It’s important for employees to be safe and employees to be happy,” Erdner said.

That’s where the safe-school plan comes into play.

“It’s not a plan that sits on a shelf and collects dust,” she said.

Adult confrontations sometimes “cross a fine line,” she said, between harassment or just trying to motivate employees to do their jobs.

In the schools, another form of bullying that is addressed in policy is students threatening teachers.

It often goes unreported as well, as adult teachers may be embarrassed or unwilling to admit they cannot handle the situation.

“Teachers become fearful of these children, and that’s kind of bad to say, but it’s the truth in my opinion,” Sundvall said.

Once again, education becomes the main factor in dealing with bullying in the workplace, King said.

Training has been known to lower incidents of violence.

“Being proactive in the workplace makes it safer down the road,” he said.

Getting help

“The thing I like to use with kids is your rights end where my rights begin,” Livesay said.

ATS sees about 600 clients a week, she said, and somewhere around 40 percent are dealing with some level of bullying, even if it’s not the priority that brought them to seek counseling.

“At some point,” she said, “it comes up.”

Most of the attention comes with younger clients, and that is where a lot of the focus on bullying problems and solutions is, but family support is crucial to any victim overcoming the inadequacies he or she feels resulting from a bullying incident.

No one has to tell that to Kaylin’s mother, whose eyes reflect her daughter’s pain when she says she just hopes by her daughter telling how she feels when she is bullied it helps end the cycle of violence so prevalent in today’s society.

Livesay, Close and Sundvall agree parental involvement is a key component not only in dealing with a bullying problem, but also in preventing one in the first place.

And that involvement, the professionals say, seems lacking more and more in today’s society.

“Kids aren’t getting what they used to after school,” Livesay said, an observation Close shares and says probably would be a major identifier for those who say bullying is a greater problem than it ever has been.

“I think in general,” Close said, “there is a reduction in civility in society, and I think there’s a lot of pressures that make it difficult for parents to engage in child rearing.”

Parents work outside the home more than they did 50 years ago, Close said, and children today are focused on computers, television and gaming devices and there is less use of imagination and interactive playing.

“You don’t see as many kids outside playing as much,” he said.

Some of that can be attributed to a 24-hour news cycle and a shrinking world prompted by technology that heightens legitimate fears of childhood predators.

But much of it can be attributed to technology that pulls children inside to play computer games and wile away hours in front of television sets and personal DVD players.

“The more you focus on the screen, the less you are focused on society,” Sundvall said.

Many children are heading into daycare or school settings with fewer social skills, and that provides more potential for bullying to occur, Close said.

Close, Sundvall and Livesay agree certain markers are present in the majority of bullying victims.

They believe, like Elling-ton and Leap with Enid schools, victims generally have low self-esteem, are highly sensitive or “thin-skinned” and are not as prone to aggression.

Other markers might include a person being small in stature or lacking competitiveness, an identity group or the skills to develop an identity.

“The heart of bullying is that someone wishes to have a detrimental impact,” Close said. “Bullying is doing something to make the other person feel powerless and controlled.”

Ironically, Livesay said, those markers also provide the DNA for a true bully, who finds power and control by bullying another.

“Bullies are oftentimes bullied, and vice versa,” she said.

Sundvall added to that by saying she tells victims bullies most likely are being picked on themselves and that can help them identify with their attackers and on some level feel better about themselves because of that connection.

The end game

Finding solutions starts at the beginning, school and community professionals say, by teaching parents to recognize the signs of a sensitive or overbearing child and guiding him or her toward self-empowerment or empathy.

Becoming a pawn of a bully is not the fault of the victim, but the reactions of those on the receiving end of an attack contribute to the overall problem.

Sensitivity, professionals are learning, is something inherited. A child is born with a “neurological disadvantage,” Close said, a reality he admits is true toward those prone to being thicker-skinned that could lead to a lack of empathy and aggression.

Education is the key to overcome, Close and ATS professionals say.

“The Highly Sensitive Person,” by Elaine Aron, is a book that offers a good place to start in identifying the markers that would make one susceptible to bullying, Close said.

The book offers a self-test titled “Are You Highly Sensitive?” that can provide one with knowledge about his or her sensitivity level. It also explains how those children — who are more easily overwhelmed by stimulation, more aware of intense emotions present in their environments, overwhelmed by the complexity of their environments and more susceptible to sensory stimulation — “... would tend to be more emotionally troubled by the slings and arrows of existence.”

ATS employs a program called Love and Logic that teaches how to parent using empathy.

“I think that’s something our society has lost out on,” Livesay said.

“It’s (today’s society) just hit back,” Sundvall added. “And sometimes as a parent you want to tell them to hit back.”

Teaching empathy, instead, ends the cycle and promotes awareness.

That’s the idea behind Great Expectations in the Enid school system as well, and while Erdner said she cannot state with absolute certainty it’s making an overwhelming difference, she said “there are fewer incident reports coming across my desk.”

“I think it’s important to teach students to stick up for one another,” Leap said.

And Trojan added there are kids who will take on that role.

It is more recognizable, McCune said, when it comes to special-needs children, who often are championed by others.

Counselors provide a “safe place,” Livesay said, and advice — “it’s OK to be mad, but it’s not OK to be bad”— and ways to role-play situations that may provide answers for a victim facing their antagonizer.

But ultimately, ending bullying hinges on teaching the thick-skinned bully more empathy and the thin-skinned victim more self-empowerment.

As well, it is teaching society it is unacceptable and when one sees bullying they should put an end to it.

“It only takes one instance to make a difference in a child’s life,” Sundvall said.

Kaylin hopes for that difference every day, so maybe life would be a little easier and there would be more understanding.

“It’s not fun on the other side,” she said. “It may be fun on your side, but it’s not fun on ours.”