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Upstanders, not bystanders

Kids, schools, states need to be part of the solution

Suzanne Thompson, a retired teacher from Saratoga School, speaks to the student body about bullying and respecting each other during a March 2012 assembly.
Suzanne Thompson, a retired teacher from Saratoga School, speaks to the student body about bullying and respecting each other during a March 2012 assembly.

Although Illinois gets high marks for its bullying prevention efforts, some argue state laws fall short of protecting our children.

The Bully Police, a national watchdog organization that reports states’ anti-bullying laws, gave Illinois an A- rating.

The high grade means that Illinois meets many of the criteria for successful bullying prevention laws according to the organization’s standards, said Brenda High, founder of the Bully Police.

High’s son, Jared, was bullied in school and later committed suicide. High filed a lawsuit against Jared’s school for failing to protect her son. One thing, she said, became perfectly evident during court proceedings.

“We noticed during the depositions that [schools] really didn’t have a clue about what to do,” High said. “There was no policy, there was no procedure, there was no law.”

And so the Bully Police was born. High was instrumental in getting bully legislation passed in her home state of Washington, and since then, has been tracking the progress of bullying laws across the U.S.
All but one state, Montana, have bullying laws on the books. Some state laws are better than others. The highest grade issued is an A++, earned by 13 states.

Illinois’ A- means the state has a clearly defined bullying law and offers recommendations on how to enforce the law, High said. The law addresses cyberbullying, earning it higher marks.

Keeping the state from a perfect score, High said, is a lack of programs for bullied children and clearly defined reporting criteria.

“A good law involves school administration on all levels,” High said.

Stricter statewide anti-bullying legislation failed this year amid conservative groups’ fears that it would indoctrinate students and embrace homosexuality.

The law was sponsored by state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, an openly gay lawmaker.

“I found a lot of the objections to the bill really disingenuous,” Cassidy said. “It was described as being a homosexual [agenda]. Emails [from opposition] cited the fact that I’m openly gay.

“...  Apparently my interest in mortgage foreclosure reform is also part of the gay agenda.”

The bill would have required schools to adopt more-detailed anti-bullying policies.

As it is written now, Illinois’ law “lacks uniformity and responsibility on all school districts,” Cassidy said. “In my opinion, a one-line policy is not one.”

Conservative groups also demanded an “opt-out” provision for anti-bullying programs if a program is against a students’ moral or personal beliefs.

“[Illinois State Board of Education], as a supporter of local decision-making, was disappointed to see the bill fail as school administrators already allow students to opt-out or attend alternative activities when an activity of the school day is against their moral or personal beliefs,” ISBE spokeswoman Mary Fergus said.

The measure lost by one vote. It needed 30 votes to pass but got only 29, with 12 senators voting “no” and 12 voting “present.” State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, was among the nay votes.

“It was stunning,” Cassidy said.

Rezin said she favors policies made at the local level over statewide legislation.

“I feel that a bully policy needs to be handled with the school boards,” she said. “Most school boards have policies, and they should.”

She said it should be up to districts how policies are handled because it gives local leaders the freedom to choose the best response for their districts.

“They understand this issue, they understand their kids better,” she said. “ ... I feel very strongly it should be at local level.”

As a legislator, she said she’s seen districts tackle the issue both through policy and through programs like Challenge Day. She said she was moved by a visit to La Salle-Peru Township High School on Sept. 18, as she watched sophomores complete the program, which addressed the issue of bullying.

“Schools have taken a more-aggressive approach in terms of bringing in groups and programs (to prevent bullying),” she said. “I commend them for that — it’s a huge problem, a huge problem.”

Rezin said the Challenge Day activities both acknowledged bullying as a problem and equipped students with ways to respond to it.

“It was a very emotional day,” she said, noting she wasn’t anticipating that aspect. “I didn’t know what I was going into.”

As students cried and talked about issues in their lives, she said she was able to learn more about the problem.

“It really opened up my eyes,” she said.

Raising the issue

At the local level, districts are required by state law to have aggressive behavior-reporting policies in place.

The district board of Coal City’s Community Unit School Dist. 1 has gone further than the minimum requirement by also adopting policy aimed at specifically preventing bullying, intimidation and harassment.

The district uses two curriculum programs — one for students in kindergarten through fifth grade and one for students in grades six through eight. Dist. 1 also has a peer mediators program, provides mediation with school administrators and social workers, and routinely holds anti-bullying events.

District Superintendent Dr. Kent Bugg said the school board adopted its aggressive behavior reporting policy in 2003, and adopted its first bullying prevention policy in 2008. While bullying isn’t a new issue, Bugg said the public’s consciousness has been raised about it through the adoption of such policies.

“I think the biggest difference is people are more aware now than they were before,” he said. “Aggressive behavior and bullying have been around forever, but I think the attention it’s receiving has caused people to be more aware.”

He said awareness is important because bullying is more likely to be a behavior that is stopped or prevented.

Cealy DePersia, social worker for Coal City Middle School, said the curriculum students take part in focuses on both what to do if students see their peers being bullied and if they are bullied.

“The big thing we focus on with students is being an upstander, not a bystander,” she said. “(An upstander) is somebody who will stand up to prevent bullying.”

If another student is being targeted, she said the program emphasizes to students the importance of taking action. Students are encouraged to find an action, whether it’s approaching a victim and asking if they’re OK and if they need help to seeking out a trusted adult and reporting the incident on their behalf.

“It’s kind of where they’re at and getting comfortable getting the victim the help they need,” she said.

Students are also given information on what to do if they are being bullied — such as being assertive and looking their bully in the eye, to get out of the situation as quickly as possible, and to tell a trusted adult, for examples.

DePersia said it’s difficult to pinpoint outcomes specifically to the curriculum, because there are so many factors to bullying and aggressive behaviors, but in her observation in the last ten years, it has made a difference, including more reporting on issues and more students being open to say what’s happening.

“We definitely hope that it’s something that is influencing our students in a positive way,” she said. “There’s more knowledge and more awareness.”

'You need to tell’

Outside of school, DePersia said there are things that teachers, parents and students can do to prevent bullying.

She said teachers in Dist. 1 are specifically trained to spot and intervene in bullying situations, as well as to do what they can to support victims. 

“We talk about this often and our teachers are very aware,” she said.

Parents also play a key role in prevention, DePersia said. She said parents should be talking with their kids about school and keep an eye out for problems.

“We encourage parents to ask their kids how was their day, so that open line of communication is happening,” she said.

If there is a problem with another student, DePersia said it’s important for parents to call the school, so that it can be addressed there, too — she said teachers who are aware of an issue can find ways to help, like moving students in a classroom.

She said fear of backlash often prevents reporting of issues, but said the problem can’t be addressed if school officials don’t know about it.

“That backlash could happen, we can’t promise it won’t, but we can inform teachers to be aware and let them be empowered to get help right away,” she said.

DePersia said victims also don’t come forward out of fear that they are “tattling.”

“Tattling and telling are two different things,” she said. “Bullying is not something that they should be dealing with. We try to emphasize to kids, you need to tell.”

In the area of technology, she also emphasizes that parents should be monitoring their child’s Internet and phone usage, from social media sites to texts. She said parents walk a fine line with privacy, however, they also have a duty to be aware of what’s happening in their child’s life.

“The parents have every right to ask and look on those types of things,” she said.

Confronting the Bully
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