The Center For Disease Control and Prevention mobilized and coordinated our global and national efforts to contain the deadly Swine Flu pandemic. So far the efforts seem to have paid dividends, although a third wave this spring is anticipated. Another pandemic we give lip service to once or twice a year in national news stories is school and cyber-bullying. Yet, we do not seem to have the same wherewithal to develop a comprehensive and systemic approach to its eradication. In my thinking, the efforts for the pandemic of bullying should be parallel to our efforts for H1N1.
Phoebe Prince attended South Hadley High in Massachusetts. She was 15 and came to live in South Hadley when her mother and sister moved with her across the pond in the fall of 2009 from Ireland. In mid-January Phoebe committed suicide, found by her sister hanged in her closet after school. Ms. Prince, according to the reports, was harassed by a gang of nine students, and was the subject of sordid tales on a website and in text messages about her as a “slut” and “druggie.”
Phoebe’s story is only beginning hit the national media with the recent felony charges brought. I fear that ther death will be forgotten in a few weeks.
Bullying is probably more insidious than the flu. Its victims’ scars too often remain hidden. Yet, according to the American Medical Association, victims of bullying are likely to suffer flu-like symptoms. An estimated 160,000 students per day are absent from school due to fear of attack and intimidation.
Bullying is one of the most underrated problems in schools. Far too often educators and parents believe that the bullies are not really causing serious harm—you know the axiom “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Words do hurt, as do electronically communicated messages.
Principals do have a more heightened awareness of the problem today than they once did, yet many students stay the silent victim until they drop out, act out, or become violent to themselves or others. In a groundbreaking study by the U.S. Secret Service, one common factor in most school shootings was the shooter had been a victim of continual hazing and harassment. In fact, in most of these shooting cases the shooter had tried to go to a school official to have them intervene.
In Phoebe’s case her mother had gone to school officials twice to request that something be done. In fact, the school had used a consultant to develop a plan for the prevention and reporting of bullying this year. The consultant is quoted as saying the plan was only partially implemented at South Hadley High.
According to Center for Disease Control and Prevention suicide rates among teenagers have tripled in the last few decades.
Here are some things we can do:
Every school safety plan should make sure all staff, students, and parents know about bullying. The reporting of incidents, whether minor or major, should be a key component of the plan and recorded in electronic databases. Comprehensive investigations should occur with each incident where the pattern is clear and a victim is evident. Parents of perpetrators and victims should be notified in all incidents. Clear, consistent and meaningful consequences must be levied. In most serious cases notification of law enforcement should be part of the plan.
Law enforcement officers must be knowledgeable about school bullying and its seriousness. Principals must inform their superintendents when the bullying is persistent and when consequences have not altered destructive behavior. School boards should be more involved; superintendents should produce a bullying report each quarter by school and grade level. Data will inform decisions and budget.
With the continuing diminishment of school resources (e.g. counselors) due to budget cuts, parents and teachers need to step-up. They must keep lines of communication with children open at all times. Parents must talk with their children about bullying, notice changes in behavior or avoidance of school and meet with a school administrator if bullying is suspected.
Children must be protected against all pandemics.