Colorado Springs schools attempt to reduce ever-growing problem of bullying

October 20, 2013 Updated: October 21, 2013 at 11:06 am
photo - Drama students perform during an anti-bullying themed showcase Sept. 26 at Falcon Middle School in Falcon School District 49. Thirty-two students from the school's eighth grade advanced theater class prepared a coffee house-style production, which combined short scenes, musical performances and monologues. They chose the theme and created the performances. Photo courtesy of Falcon School District 49
Drama students perform during an anti-bullying themed showcase Sept. 26 at Falcon Middle School in Falcon School District 49. Thirty-two students from the school's eighth grade advanced theater class prepared a coffee house-style production, which combined short scenes, musical performances and monologues. They chose the theme and created the performances. Photo courtesy of Falcon School District 49  

It happens at every school. Students call each other names like "fatty" and "ugly" in between classes, sneak punches or kicks on the bus and post nasty insults online: "Nobody likes you." "You're such a loser."

Bullying - a written, verbal, physical or, now, electronic, action intended to coerce, intimidate or harm another student - has been as much of a part of school as the pop quiz.

"It's always there, and it's always going to be there, to some extent," says Jim Olmstead, director of strategic partnerships for The Foundation for Character Development. The Boulder-based organization helps schools assess their bullying problems and figure out how to handle them.

What to do about bullying has become a national focus because today, instead of being something of an adolescent rite of passage that leaves a black eye or hurt feelings, kids are dying. Earlier this month, two teenage girls were arrested in Florida in a bullying-suicide case involving a 12-year-old classmate. At least a dozen or so suicides around the nation in the past few years have been attributed, in part, to bullying.

The story of Destiny Roselle's son, Daeton, is all too familiar. Daeton, who is large for his age, 12. He's 6-feet-tall, and he's hearing-impaired, has been picked on since he started first grade in Colorado Springs, according to his mom. It was small stuff at first - students poking holes in his shirts or writing on them.

It escalated from there.

"He would come home with bruises and scrapes. He got his front teeth knocked out," Roselle said.

The few times Daeton tried to fight back, he got suspended, she said.

"The school's excuse was, 'I'd find it hard to believe anybody would pick on you - you're so big,'" Roselle said. "It seems like they protect the bully."

This school year, Roselle said her son was choked in the middle school lunchroom.

"He was scared and crying. The school made light of it. They said it wasn't life-threatening and boys will be boys," Roselle said.

In the past few weeks, Daeton's mom moved him a different state, where he lives with his grandmother and attends school.

Although there are two sides to every story, Colorado Springs School District 11, where Daeton had been a student, won't comment on individual instances because of privacy issues, said spokeswoman Devra Ashby.

Several local districts have had high-profile bullying cases. One of two 18-year-old students from Falcon School District 49 pleaded guilty to misdemeanor harassment for making threatening remarks on a Facebook page called "Falcon Problems." The page was removed in March.

Charges were dismissed in September against one of the students. The other was court-ordered Oct. 8 to write a letter of apology, write a three-page paper about cyberbullying and perform 40 hours of community service.

Last school year, a teen suicide in D-49 and another in Academy School District 20 prompted some in the community to point the finger at bullying, although law enforcement did not come to that conclusion.

Statistics on bullying aren't easy to come by because incidents usually get lumped into a general category of disciplinary issues or harassment. One of the most recent polls, the 2011 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, showed roughly one in five students statewide was bullied on school property and 14 percent electronically bullied in the past 12 months. One-third of students bullied indicated they had seriously considered suicide, compared with 10 percent of students who weren't bullied.

Olmstead said the numbers are usually low because many episodes aren't reported.

Students are bullied because of their race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, disability, body type or a perceived weakness, according to the Colorado Legacy Foundation, which has an initiative to help schools prevent bullying.

Bullying is associated with poorer grades and self-esteem, and it can have a negative impact on dropout rates, "educational aspirations" and "psychological well-being," Colorado Legacy says.

"Is it a concern? Is it on the radar screen for us? Absolutely," said Lt. Jeff Kramer, spokesman for the El Paso County Sheriff's Office. "We realize it's something that goes on, and we're very tuned in to these possibilities and that nowadays we have to look beyond bullying in the hallways to social media channels."

Colorado lawmakers in 2011 passed a law that requires school boards to update or enact anti-bullying policies, and local districts have stepped up their efforts.

"We're doing everything we can to help create a safe climate," D-11's spokeswoman Ashby said. "It's a serious issue, and it's taking more of a precedence, as we help people understand what to watch for, the role of the bystander and the difference between conflict and bullying."

D-11, the region's largest school district with about 29,000 students, this school year added a new anonymous online reporting system for bullying and harassment, which has generated 108 unduplicated reports from Aug. 19 through Oct. 17. One third were deemed "unfounded" complaints; 64 were investigated with an 88 percent resolution; and nine are under investigation.

The district also is keeping Safe2Tell available. The telephone hotline fields anonymous reports on any issue, including underage drinking, suicide attempts and bullying.

"We have an obligation to recognize, report and respond to bullying and prevent it from occurring," Ashby said. "All adults in D-11 are accountable for modeling behavior free from bullying, harassment and discrimination."

This past week at Russell Middle School, a D-11 school recognized by Olmstead's organization for the past three years for its character development programs, students chanted, "Stop the Hate, Spread the Hope," at an anti-bullying assembly while releasing 200 balloons.

"I have at least three stories of students that had bullied others that apologized outside to those they had bullied," said Principal Julie Williams.

Schools in Falcon D-49 also have hosted awareness events, including a community-wide concert in August and a week of special programs at Sand Creek High School, in recognition of October being National Bullying Prevention Month. Also, Falcon Middle School's drama class took the initiative to do a performance in September on the topic.

"Bullying is not just a school issue; it affects the community as a whole," said David Watson, the district's safety and emergency coordinator. "We don't want to turn a blind eye to it - we want to be a resource."

The district's third "climate survey" is underway and continues until Nov. 1, to get feedback from students on the environment at their schools. Adjustments will follow.

For example, "If we realize cyberbullying is occurring during school hours, we'll look at if it's a monitoring issue in the classroom, where a student is texting, or do we need additional staff training to not allow that to happen," Watson said.

Last spring, 404 students out of 3,855 who responded said they had been bullied sometime in the past year.

D-49 has used the Safe2Tell reporting system for six years. Bringing guest speakers and national programs, such as Rachel's Challenge and KidPower, to schools, also helps, Watson said.

"We have isolated incidents, as all school districts do, and we're not going to hide and say bullying doesn't exist - we know it does," Watson said. "The challenge is how you mitigate it."

Watson cites building relationships, opening the lines of communication and making sure students know they have a voice as important steps: "It's getting the students involved and engaged."

While bullying won't be completely eradicated, The Foundation for Character Development's Olmstead said schools should take proactive, not reactive steps, to address it. One way: Promote more "pro-social behavior."

That means helping students develop empathy and be kind, respectful and civil toward one another, he said. Along with that is identifying emotional triggers and how to deal with them.

"These are skills that are developed over a lifetime, but if you're getting some intentional support in developing those at an early age, you'll be more adjusted later on in life," said Olmstead.

Bullying is not just a student-to-student problem - it's very much an adult issue, he added.

Students who are caught bullying are subject to districts' disciplinary policies ranging from a verbal warning from an administrator up to a recommendation for expulsion and possible criminal charges. School resource officers, who are police officers or sheriff's deputies, are an important piece in both deterring and handling bullying, said Kramer.

"They're a great asset to our districts because they're so visible in the schools, and they establish relationships, which helps because students are willing to talk to them and share information that generates action or intervention early enough to where it hasn't reached a criminal element," he said.

Law enforcement responds to reports of cyberbullying from school administrators, students and parents.

"Once we're made aware of even the possibility, we'll initiate an investigation," Kramer said, "and if it meets the elements of a crime - harassment or menacing - we'll proceed. If it doesn't we'll help mitigate." Olmstead recommends that schools assess their climate using a program and rely on an outside facilitator to analyze the data. "Use the information as "a flashlight, not a hammer," he said, to help staff, parents and students brainstorm solutions to integrate into the fabric of the school.

"Schools need to look not only at bullying behaviors but also how teachers get along with each other and how students get along with teachers," Olmstead said. "You can't just isolate the bullying because it's more complex. Bullying reduces good teaching and learning. It's directly connected to all of our education."

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