Would things have been different at California’s Santana High School if suspect Charles Andrew Williams hadn’t been called a freak? If he hadn’t been mocked about his looks? Although authorities have yet to specify what prompted the March 5 shooting at Santana—which left two teen-agers dead and 13 other people wounded—schoolmates say Williams was the butt of frequent teasing. He was called a freak, a dork, and a nerd. He was mocked for his skinny appearance; his skateboard reportedly was stolen.

The March 5 tragedy and others like it have prompted lawmakers and school officials to take a new look at an old problem: what to do about student bullying. A new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, meanwhile, gives a clear indication of just how prevalent the problem is.

The study, released three days after the Santana shooting, indicates that bullying and teasing have become a primary concern among teens—more of a concern than discrimination, alcohol, violence, or drugs.

The nationwide survey of 823 children, conducted in December and January, showed that 56 percent of students ages 8 to 11—and 60 percent of students ages 12 to 15—believe bullying and teasing is a “big problem.”

Kevin Dwyer, a leading expert on children’s mental health, said an estimated 4 percent of the nation’s students skip school at least once a month because of fears of bullying.

“It’s a problem with effects that can last lifelong, and yet people tend to discount it because it’s always been around,” said Dwyer, the former president of the National Association of School Psychologists.

William Hedges, principal of Kiowa High School in Colorado, agrees. “For so long, the plan for dealing with bullies was, ‘Boys will be boys. You just have to tough it out,'” he said. “That approach just doesn’t work anymore.”

To combat the problem, more and more school districts are implementing specific anti-bullying programs. If done right, experts say, these programs can reduce incidents of bullying and harassment by more than 50 percent.

“It’s not something you’re going to do in a week,” said William Porter, a psychologist with the 42,000-student Cherry Creek School District in suburban Denver. “It may take two or three years of major commitment to get the kind of climate where kids feel safe.”

Many states are taking action as well, using legislation to curb the problem.

A revamped plan to attack hazing in schools passed the Arizona House on March 21. The new bill would require schools to set zero-tolerance hazing policies and outline consequences. The bill passed 36-20 and heads to the Senate, where a tougher version to create a new crime of hazing failed in February.

In Colorado, the state Legislature is working on a bill that would require school districts statewide to implement some sort of anti-bullying plan. The measure arose from an initiative by the state’s attorney general, Ken Salazar, who heard repeated complaints about bullying during a series of post-Columbine town meetings.

“The kids are feeling that the schools aren’t doing anything about this,” said Cherry Creek’s Porter. “The kids who feel there’s no one they can go to—those are the ones who have the most trouble. That’s when you’re talking about avenging or suicide.”

In Washington state, the Senate passed legislation on March 7 aimed at cracking down on bullying. The bill would require all of the state’s 296 school districts to adopt stringent policies against harassment, intimidation, and bullying.

Staff training would be required for spotting and reporting problems, and schools would be encouraged to set up special anti-bullying task forces. No specific penalties for bullying are spelled out, since the bill is based on prevention.

Zero tolerance

In California’s Newport-Mesa Unified School District, board members have approved a new anti-bullying policy that experts say is among the toughest in the country, the Los Angeles Times reported March 13.

The policy, which adds bullying to the the list of offenses covered under the district’s zero-tolerance policy, would punish campus bullying as harshly as bringing a knife or a bottle of vodka to school. Students who are caught bullying could be transferred to other district campuses and could be referred to counseling.

Parents requested the policy last spring, after a student reportedly choked another boy at Corona del Mar High School, sending the victim to the hospital. The policy would cover verbal as well as physical abuse.

But elsewhere, school officials are concerned about how anti-bullying policies must be applied.

In Merrimack, N.H., school board members are having trouble with a state requirement to adopt, implement, and enforce anti-bullying policies. Members feel the mandate, which went into effect Jan. 1, is too subjective and could open the way to lawsuits.

The school district has drafted a policy that mirrors the minimal policy required by the state, which defines bullying as “conduct [that] subjects a pupil to insults, taunts, or challenges, whether verbal or physical in nature, which are likely to intimidate or provoke a violent or disorderly response from the student being treated in this manner.”

“Our hands are really boxed in by this [legislation],” said Ken Coleman, board chairman. “It’s legally required to be too broad and too vague. This is the type of thing that gets school districts into trouble.”

Board members have urged fellow member and state Rep. Jack Balcom, R-Merrimack, to take their concerns to the state Legislature.

Changing the school culture

Experts say anti-bullying programs aren’t likely to succeed unless they aim to change the entire culture of a school, moving beyond zero-tolerance policies to tackle student attitudes as well. They say effective programs draw in the entire school community, with particular focus on students who are neither victims nor bullies.

“That’s the most important and difficult part—changing the silent majority into a caring majority that will stand up for what’s right,” Porter said.

Also vital is training a school’s entire staff, so victimized students have options when they consider seeking an adult’s help.

“We want every kid to have thought about two or three adults they can turn to—not just the school counselor,” Porter said. “It could be the food service person, the bus driver.”

In the small town of Kiowa, on Colorado’s eastern plains, the high school of 140 students has curtailed bullying with a program that enlists the entire senior class as advocates for harmony.

The program includes a three-day retreat in the mountains for seniors at the start of the school year, and daily meetings of students from all four grades. Hedges, the school’s principal, believes bigger schools could incorporate some elements of the program, too. From the students’ perspective, it’s clear that anti-bullying programs can help—but only if they’re well-designed.

Anders Pesavent, 18, a senior at Kennedy High School in Bloomington, Minn., said bullying seems to have eased since he was a freshman.

The formation of a student-run anti-violence group may have helped, he said. But he scoffed at one recent program in which students were given a tracing of a hand and asked to pledge not to use their hands for violence.

“We’re all high school students, but it did reek of elementary school,” he said. Aaron Lindenbaum, a 10th grader at Shawnee Mission East High School in suburban Kansas City, Missouri, said students who get picked on assume there’s nowhere to get help.

He also doubted whether bullies would pay attention to adults who tell them to lay off: “They only way they realize it’s not right is if their friends tell them.”

A schoolmate, Lenny Tocco, said many students only understand how much bullying hurts when they’re on the receiving end. “Once you had something done to you,” he said, “you know what it feels like.”

Links:

Read the results of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s survey on bullying and other student problems in “Talking with Kids About Tough Issues,” a partnership between the Kaiser Family Foundation and Nickelodeon to encourage parent-child communication.

http://www.kff.org/content/2001/3105

“Bullying in Schools: Resources” is a fairly comprehensive list of articles, books, web sites, and reference guides on the subject of school bullying, developed by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

http://ericeece.org/pubs/reslist/bully00.html