LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. (LAKE OSWEGO REVIEW) — In the seventh-grader’s social studies notebook, bullies sneaked in a neatly written note in red pen that read, “(Expletive) go die. No one likes you.”
In the bathroom, they scrawled on the wall in black Sharpie, “Grace Peterson should go die.” Her abusers shoved her into lockers and against walls, says her mother, Tammy Peterson. They quietly ridiculed her, shredding her self-esteem.
But Grace was scared to tell anyone what was happening. Instead, she tried to handle the situation on her own by trying to avoid the girls who hurt her physically and mentally, Peterson says.
“Grace would try to avoid this by taking other routes and hiding in the bathroom,” her mother says, “making her late for class.”
It didn’t work. The bullies still found her. And Grace still stayed quiet. Peterson says she didn’t even know her daughter was suffering until Grace finally told her teachers in November about the bullying and showed where she had scraped her wrist with scissors.
“Grace and I have a very close relationship,” Peterson says. “We talk all the time, and I didn’t see it, and she never mentioned a word of it to me. I thought I would see it — I thought I would know if something was up. That is the biggest shock to me, that I couldn’t tell.”
Sadly, Grace’s story is a familiar one. Bullying is common, especially for adolescents. At least one out of five young people throughout the country have experienced something similar, according to a U.S. Department of Justice survey. And the stakes are high.
Depression and suicide are more common among teens who have been bullied or subjected to other forms of harassment, according to sciencedaily.com. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death in teens.
As soon as Grace’s teachers approached Peterson, she reached out to Lake Oswego Junior High School administrators. They stepped in, as did Community Service Officer James Euscher, who is currently attending the police academy full time in Salem.
Peterson said she also approached the parents of one of the girls suspected of bullying Grace and told her she wanted to work together on the issue to address it. But that woman called the police.
“They did caution me not to return to her property again,” she says.
Peterson said she believes the bullies targeted her daughter because she is small and pretty, but it surprised her since many of the students involved were previously her child’s friends. She says she feels she could have gotten a quicker response to her problem, but she says Grace is doing well now and is receiving the support she needs.
“She is feeling more comfortable at school,” Peterson says, “and is continuing her therapy.”
Lake Oswego School District officials do not comment on investigations or student disciplinary measures, but local administrators are making a concerted effort to buck national trends by teaching children appropriate behavior.
This month, LOJ is rolling out a program called Sailor Strong to create a more positive environment. Lakeridge Junior High has a process in place for fostering a connection between children and “trusted adults” at the school.
At Lakeridge High School, guest speakers and support from on-call experts are part of the effort to fight bullying. And at Lake Oswego High School, there are efforts to bring in guest speakers to raise awareness about the misuse of social media; the school has also held diversity assemblies and more.
But bullying is an age-old problem that is linked, some experts say, to basic human nature. Bullying is the repeated abuse of power to cause harm, the strong preying on the weak to gain power. That’s a reality that schools have always faced, although the advent of social media has added another element to the equation — and another opportunity to hurt.
“Bullying has been going on for decades and is not something new,” LOHS Principal Cindy Schubert says. “But today’s students have much more to deal with, because of the social media element, that makes it easier to harass students without having to do so face to face. So I can’t say we are able to prevent bullying, but we certainly do attempt to create the culture where students are understanding and accepting of all groups/students. It is definitely a work in progress at this stage, but something we take very seriously.”
The Lake Oswego School District has a clear policy that any employee who sees bullying “on district property, at a district-sponsored activity or in a district vehicle or vehicle used for transporting students to a district activity” must report it to the principal or superintendent immediately. Students found to be in violation of the district policy “will be subject to discipline, up to and including expulsion.”
But school officials are also trying to take a proactive approach, going beyond the district policy in an effort to create a positive environment. It’s an approach that’s recommended by numerous experts and by the online forum Nobullying.com, which offers education and advice to stop bullying.
Nobullying.com suggests a number of preventative steps: create positive rules, model good behavior, encourage positive relationships, include everyone, keep parents involved, keep children occupied and identify children who may need additional support. The website also recommends maximizing adult supervision, since bullying often takes place when no authority figure is around to stop it.
At LOJ, Sailor Strong is one of the ways officials are working to create a positive environment. Sixth-grade counselor Molly Healy says the school’s three counselors wanted to take what they believe in when it comes to school culture and shape it into a useful program.
“We strive to be a school with a culture of safety,” Healy says. “We want this program to be something that everyone will recognize and utilize as a supportive way to be ‘Sailor Strong.’”
The staff started learning about the program in late January. In early February, counselors trained a group of students — called “senators” — on the school-wide expectation of “common respect,” Healy says. Once they understand respect, students will learn about personal safety and will learn a “stop” phrase to be used when someone is suspected of bullying behavior.
Anyone who is asked to “stop,” Healy says, “will be taught a strategy to move away from the situation without escalating it.”
The counselors will develop additional issues and topics for the program as students grow. “We want our students to know we are here for them, to help and support them,” Healy says.
Teaching children that adults are there for them is crucial, says Lakeridge Junior High Assistant Principal Alix Pickett.
“One of the keys to student success in middle school is meaningful relationships with trusted adults,” Pickett says. “The Association for Middle Level Education talks about that in terms of ensuring ‘that every student’s academic and personal development is guided by an adult advocate.’ To that end, we have a process for determining students who may be lacking that kind of connection so that staff can proactively build meaningful connections with caring adults for those kids.”
Pickett urges parents to listen carefully to their children and to ask them if there is an adult at school who they trust.
“We want our students to feel safe at school,” Pickett says. “We can’t ensure that if we don’t know there is a problem.”
LOHS has long had “zero tolerance to bullying,” Schubert says. But with more than 1,300 students and the ongoing nature of social media, “there will be times when students make mistakes.”
“Our goal is to take these opportunities and make them learning moments for all students involved,” she says, “so that when it is over, they understand the impact their actions had on another human being and are truly empathetic to what they did.”
Schubert says the school recently brought in a speaker who addressed the use of social media. There also have been diversity assemblies and Respect Week, as well as Laker Crew (older students helping freshmen adapt to their new environs) and Natural Helpers (a peer-to-peer program starting next year).
“We also attempt to develop positive relationships with students, so if a situation occurs, the student knows who to go to for help,” Schubert says. “In many cases, students feel responsible for negative situations and will come tell their counselor or another adult when they see or hear of someone being treated poorly.”
At Lakeridge High, teachers start each school year by covering information in the student handbook, including the district’s anti-bullying policy and what to do if students feel they are being bullied. In addition, the school brings in guest speakers, such as anti-bullying orator Cary Trivanovich.
Speakers are “dedicated to helping students treat each other more respectfully and empowering them to learn that they do not have to tolerate harassing/bullying behaviors,” Lakeridge High School Vice Principal John Parke says.
Parke says that Diana Cutaia, founder of Coaching Peace, has also played a crucial role at Lakeridge. The school district brought Cutaia to Lake Oswego from the Boston area following an investigation in December 2014 that concluded there had been a culture of hazing and bullying at Lakeridge High. Poor sportsmanship during past football games had also caused concern.
Cutaia has worked with Lakeridge’s athletic department to teach respectful coaching techniques and has worked with many Pacer athletes “to help them interact with each other more productively, and especially how to appropriately interact with opposing athletes,” Parke says.
“Diana has worked with groups of teachers to provide suggestions and techniques on respectful teaching and spotting and avoiding bullying behavior by students in the classroom,” he adds. “She has also effectively worked with groups of students outside the classroom, and with parent groups.”
Cutaia is also on call and ready to support administrators if they need her.
“She seems to always be available and willing to help us work through challenging issues related to bullying/harassment or mistreatment of any kind,” Parke says. “She has been an unbelievably positive asset to the district and definitely to Lakeridge High School.”
What is bullying?
Bullying is defined as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-age children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance,” according to Stopbullying.gov, a government website that’s part of an interagency effort led by the Department of Education to coordinate policy, research and communications on bullying topics. “The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”
There are three main types of traditional bullying: verbal, social and physical. Verbal bullying can involve teasing, inappropriate sexual comments or threatening to cause harm, while social bullying involves excluding or humiliating someone or spreading rumors. Physical bullying not only includes hitting, pinching, pushing and tripping, but also spitting, stealing and making rude hand gestures.
Cyber bullying involves sharing hurtful information online, or unwanted contact via email, texting, social media, etc.
In all its forms, bullying is a form of cruelty. It may not always be violent, but it is always aggressive and inextricably linked to human nature, according to “Adolescent Psychiatry: A Contemporary Perspective for Health Professionals,” which was published in 2013.
The reason kids bully has something to do with climbing up the popularity ladder, according to a 2011 article in Time magazine. It’s a power struggle. It may have nothing to do with what a child is experiencing at home, although a rough home life also could be a factor.
Relational aggression (teasing or emotional bullying) peaks in the 10-13 age group, with 45 percent of children in that age range reporting it in 2011. Physical bullying behavior crests at 18 percent in children ages 2 to 5, according to an article in the peer-reviewed medical journal JAMA Pediatrics. Internet and cell phone harassment is at its highest, 14 percent, for ages 14-17.
Why kids bully varies, but there are six major reasons, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institutes of Health. Children are victimized because:
• They are seen as different from their peers, including being: overweight or underweight, a sexual minority, of another race/ethnicity or different in appearance.
• They are seen as weak or unable to defend themselves.
• They are depressed, anxious or have low self-esteem.
• They have few friends or are less popular than most people.
• They do not socialize well with others.
• They have an intellectual or developmental disability.
More than 21 percent of students ages 12-18 reported being bullied at school — in ways that included being ridiculed, physically harmed, threatened or excluded — in 2012-13, according to a U.S. Department of Justice survey of almost 5,000 students.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention — as part of its 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, a biannual questionnaire of teens in grades nine-12 in all 50 states — found that children who are bullied are far more likely to experience depression and suicide.
Almost 7 percent of students reported cyberbullying in 2013, including hurtful information shared on the Internet or unwanted contact via email, instant messaging, texting and online gaming, according to the survey, which was highlighted in a 2015 U.S. Department of Education report.
Michael Musick, the LOSD’s executive director of school management, says those statistics are sobering.
“We want all kids to be safe and all adults to be safe in our buildings,” he says.
Kids are watching
Cutaia has told The Review that it’s important to remember that while kids can be cruel, bad behavior is also part of the learning process of discovering how to interact with one another. No kid should simply be labeled as a bully, she says. It’s up to adults to teach them what is right.
During her time in Lake Oswego, Cutaia has helped create Oswego BRAVE (Being Respectful And Valuing Everyone), which had its first workshop in January. The goal of the organization, its members say, is not only to support the school district in providing a safe and positive learning environment for all students, but also to create such an environment citywide by engaging and educating the entire community.
Another step the district can take, according to Musick, is to continue to hire “great teachers who care deeply about kids.” Fostering positive relationships with adult advocates and a positive environment in schools is the key, he says, so it’s important for adults to model a “culture of acceptance” — because kids are watching.
“They’re going to mirror what we do,” he says.
Musick says that deep down, most children want to do the right thing. But they must be taught, and adults must show them how.
“I really believe that no one wants to be intolerant,” he says. Empathy is important, because then “kids start opening their eyes” and connecting the emotional hurt with their behavior.
As for Grace, Peterson says she makes sure to check in with her daughter every day and is more involved in what’s happening at her school.
“As it stands now,” she says, “the behavior against Grace has stopped.”
The Lake Oswego Review is a KOIN media partner.