No matter where a person is from, there are bullies and victims of bullying.
Over the past decade, with teen suicide rates resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, communities have taken notice. The attitude of “boys will be boys” or “they’re just being kids” is fading. The numbers don’t lie: Victims of bullying are up to nine times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to researchers at the Yale School of Medicine.
What does it mean to be a bully? When does a difference of opinion cross the line into bullying? How often is what is perceived to be bullying simply a misunderstanding?
According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s Model Bullying Policy, bullying is deliberate or intentional, repeated behavior and represents an imbalance of power. It can be physical, verbal or indirect, such as spreading cruel rumors or social exclusion. It is often motivated by a real or perceived distinguishing characteristic, like age, race, religion, gender, physical attributes, socioeconomic status and more.
For Mauston High School student Olivia Lulich, she was bullied simply because her hobbies and interests were different to that of her peers.
“When I was in elementary school my hobbies were different than the other kids I knew,” Lulich said. “I participated in pageants and competitive dancing. I didn’t do sports or show cattle.”
Now in high school, Lulich said people are more accepting of her interests.
“I think it’s because they see I’m not this stereotypical pageant girl,” Lulich said. “For me, it’s more about community service and being your natural self.”
Tim Belleau, a guidance counselor at Portage High School, said state law now requires school districts to have a bullying prevention policy in place.
“It stems from an incident that occurred in the 1990s in Ashland County to a kid named Jamie Nabozny,” Belleau said. “That court case is what created this big push for anti-bullying programs statewide.”
According to the website FindLaw.com, Jamie Nabozny was repeatedly harassed physically and emotionally by other students through middle school and high school for being gay. Nabozny claimed he reported the harassment to school officials with the hope of resolution. At the time, the school district had a policy of investigating and punishing student-on-student battery and sexual harassment, but allegedly neglected to act on Nabozny’s complaints — with some evidence even suggesting some of the administrators themselves mocked Nabozny’s predicament.
Due to the continued harassment, the youth attempted suicide twice, spent time in a hospital and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. In the end, Nabozny and his family decided to sue the district and fellow students claiming violation of his rights under the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection of the laws. The District Court made a summary judgment in favor of the school district.
Nabozny appealed, and the Seventh Circuit Federal Appeals Court later determined the school district and other students had infringed his equal protection rights on the grounds of combined gender and sexual orientation discrimination. The case then settled for close to $1 million.
A child’s age and ability to understand and appreciate differences has an impact on their perception of bullying and their ability to recognize it.
Anne Uphoff, a guidance counselor at Bridges Elementary School in Prairie du Sac, works with students in 4K through second grade.
“At this age, we’d all like to say it doesn’t happen in school,” Uphoff said. “Even if it isn’t really happening but a child perceives it is, we still have to treat it. We can’t just say it isn’t a big deal.”
In early grades, when Uphoff goes into a classroom, she teaches students about feelings, friends, school and safety. Conflict resolution happens at every grade level, but the methods and language used differs as children get older.
“We don’t use the term ‘bullying’ much at the kindergarten level,” Uphoff said. Terms such as ‘rude moment’ or ‘mean moment’ are used because it resonates more with younger children who haven’t had the breadth of life experience to understand what the term ‘bullying’ means.
Uphoff said bullying has intent and a targeted feature to it.
“By grade two, we try to help the kids determine if they have been a target,” Uphoff said. “By that grade, developmentally, they start to get it.”
She said kids need to be able to understand another person’s point of view.
“That’s not always the case for kids in kindergarten,” Uphoff said. “Their brain is still in development. We use methods that are more like solving problems, like sharing of time, space and things.”
Bridges also uses a tiered system of behavior management, such as above, below, and bottom line behaviors.
“Above the line is what we expect. It’s the rules,” Uphoff said. “Below the line behavior is when people slip up or make a mistake. Then we do a fix-it, such as naming three things you like about a person. Bottom line is really serious and should be known by now.”
Joel Ludowitz, Sauk Prairie police officer who serves as the school resource officer for the Sauk Prairie School District, interacts with every grade level in his position.
“I think at younger ages, what we typically see is more verbal bullying, like name-calling or maybe not playing with someone,” Ludowitz said. “As kids get older, they get cellphones and instead of physical or verbal bullying, they get into the online stuff.”
Ludowitz said although he gets occasional calls for fistfights at the middle school level, he sees a great deal of verbal altercations.
“I think kids at the middle school level are at the highest risk for both being the bully and being the victim of bullying,” Ludowitz said. “Middle school is when kids are starting to mature and figuring out who they are and where they fit in.”
Kyle Crosby, unit director for the Boys and Girls Club in Baraboo and interim director at the newly established Reedsburg site, said he sees instances of bullying really start to come out in the late “tweens,” typically kids ages 11 and 12.
“Girls tend to do a lot of name-calling, using social media and excluding someone,” Crosby said. “Guys are typically a little more physical or will name-call. One male might see it as joking around while the kid on the receiving end might not. This is also about the age where niches and groups form and kids start to exclude others.”
“In middle school, kids are trying to figure out where they fit in and friendships are shifting,” said Julie Ennis, principal at Spring Hill Middle School in Wisconsin Dells. “In elementary school, you are with your class; it’s more of a family atmosphere. In middle school you change classes and are mixed with other students, so kids start trying to fit into a niche so as not to get left out.”
Some experts say as kids move to high school, the fistfights, locker slamming and lunch stealing of days past have morphed into what some consider an even more dangerous form of harm: cyber bullying.
According to Dr. Justin Patchin, co-founder of the Cyberbullying Research Center, technology has made it easier for youth to participate in bullying.
“Historically, kids had to be in the same space (to bully), but now they have access 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can access social media from almost anywhere,” Patchin said. “Technology and the internet have created more opportunities for people to mistreat one another.”
In his research, Patchin found that although incidents of reported bullying are prevalent, those numbers haven’t changed much over the past five years and have remained relatively stable.
“Bullying still affects more kids in school than it does online,” Patchin said. “It is surprising, but with every study, we find the same result.”
Uphoff said bullying isn’t always obvious and can present itself in different ways.
“It could be leaving someone out on purpose,” Uphoff said. “It could be where someone is really nice to you one-on-one, but in a crowd as a bystander they might not do anything. We try to get them to realize how that might look to the other child.”
Uphoff said by training kids to stand up for someone, they can help reduce a bully’s power.
“Bystanders have the power to turn something around by walking away,” Uphoff said. “The more bystanders who stay, the bully is getting that attention. For so many years we have just focused on the bully, whereas now we are working with bystanders in order to get it to stop.”
Another epidemic sweeping teenagers and young adults is the concept of sexting, which is essentially sending, receiving, or forwarding sexually explicit messages or images, usually through mobile phones, but can also include the use of a computer or any digital device.
Patchin said it’s definitely something to be aware of, but doesn’t happen as much as the media would have society believe.
“Last fall, we asked students to tell us if they’d participated in sexting — either sending or receiving,” Patchin said. “In our research, 12 percent of our sample of high school and middle school youth had sent a sext, while 19 percent said they’d received a sext. That study was based on 5,500 students and that was the average across the study. Some students as young as 12 admitted to sending a sext message.”
Patchin said although the numbers aren’t as high as people think, sexting is still a serious problem.
“The laws are not evolving because most states don’t have sexting laws, so we are stuck with using child pornography laws,” Patchin said. “So a 17-year-old could be charged with distributing pornography.”
Ludowitz said bullying or other harassment occurring online is sometimes worse because more people are involved, and more people see the bullying.
“If you are calling someone a name or doing something on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, 120 different people are seeing it,” Ludowitz said. “Whereas if a fight happens in a hallway, it might just be two to five.”
Patchin said for the most part, it appears kids are beginning to understand the ramifications of sexting.
“They are learning,” Patchin said. “I would say when we first started doing this, and we’ve been speaking in schools for about 10 years now, kids were genuinely surprised when they learned there were significant consequences. But as time as gone on and we are used to technology, most students do realize it could be hurtful, negative and have undesirable consequences.”
Besides state-mandated policies, the use of cameras and video recorders in schools, police presence and parental involvement are all tools in the fight against bullying.
“Most of what we do is helping to train kids to step up and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t like the way you said that,’” Uphoff said. “Recently, we had a couple of girls point out to another student that they wore the same shirt twice the previous week. So we talked to them about how that type of language could be hurtful to someone else.”
Ennis said faculty has received extensive training in bullying behaviors.
“We have to determine, is it repeated and is it intentional to place emotional or physical harm?” Ennis said. “Sometimes kids just don’t realize their actions or the words they use could be offensive to someone else. Sometimes it just takes a level of understanding.”
She said her school is trying to help foster relationships among the students.
“We hope through more understanding they might treat one another differently,” Ennis said.
Crosby said the Boys and Girls Club recognizes bullying also happens outside the school, and can be intensified when you have a group of kids from different ages, backgrounds and schools all converging in a single place.
“It happens everywhere,” Crosby said. “A lot of stuff we get is carryover from the school day. All the kids get bused here, so a lot of times it stems from something that’s happened on the bus. Obviously with so many kids here, it happens at the club, too. It’s bound to come up.”
Crosby said the first thing they do at the Boys and Girls Club is create an atmosphere where it’s OK to be you.
“We get kids from more than five different schools, so they don’t necessarily interact with each other every single day,” Crosby said. “We stress to everyone that it’s safe to be here and that no one will judge you. And that starts with the atmosphere of the club.”
When incidents do arise, Crosby said they are careful not to always assume it is an act of bullying.
Staff at the club work closely with the kids to provide programming establishing character. The boys program is the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
“Boys learn how to be a man without acting like Macho Man Randy Savage,” Crosby said, referring to the former professional wrestler. “It also teaches them how to stick up for their friends.”
Crosby said the club’s female program, Smart Girls, offers the same lessons but in a gender-specific way.
“Regardless of who they are, we encourage an openness to talk among the kids,” Crosby said. “A lot of times kids don’t want to talk about it, whether they are the victim or the aggressor, because they are afraid they’re going to get in trouble. ”
Uphoff said at a younger age, kids are usually coached by teachers and given the tools to work out a problem among themselves. An adult always intervenes when an act is damaging or dangerous.
Ludowitz said the Sauk Prairie School District has a process where someone can report an incident of bullying anonymously through the district’s website. The message then gets sent to the school principal.
Ennis said Wisconsin Dells also provides kids with a way to safely report any bullying incidents. Once the problem is reported, the message is sent to the school counselor, assistant principal and principal.
“You don’t have to put your name on it,” Ennis said. “It empowers people to speak up and spark change if they don’t feel comfortable talking to a staff member.”
Lulich, who serves as a brand ambassador for an anti-bullying organization out of Milwaukee, said when she visits elementary classrooms, she talks about how kids can stand up for their friends.
“I talk to them about when they see a friend or someone else getting picked on, there are ways they can help intervene,” Lulich said. “Statistics show 57 percent of bullying stops when a friend intervenes.”
Ennis said in addition to working with her middle school students on relationship-building, they have brought in guest speakers on bullying as well. Recently Spring Hill Middle School played host to retired professional wrestler Marc Mero.
“He told the kids he wasn’t always nice to the people who were kind to him,” Ennis said. “He has a lot of regrets.”
Perhaps the most important key in preventing bullying is parent involvement.
“If you’re a parent, sit down and talk with your kid,” Crosby said. “Try to get them to see what the reverse side of it is. Talk to them about what the repercussions are if they do it (bullying).”
Ludowitz said most importantly, parents need to do preventive things, such as be aware of what social media their kids are on, making sure they have access to the contents of their mobile device, and in general, just checking in with them.
“If you learn about them being bullied, talk with a counselor or administrator,” Ludowitz said. “If it’s severe, contact law enforcement. It’s important for the school to know because there could be potential for problems if the kids are seeing each other or interacting with one another. If the school knows, the kids can be separated or have a no-contact contract or have a change in schedule.”
He is still surprised by the number of times a parent has been shocked to hear their kid was involved in bullying.
“They think their kid would never do it or don’t know they don’t like a certain kid,” Ludowitz said. “It’s important for parents to be intuitive and know who their kids are talking to and that they are being safe.”
Ludowitz said parents sometimes put too much trust in a child and let them have technology that they aren’t mature enough to use yet, such as cellphones and social media platforms.
“Some of the parents are just oblivious,” he said. “I know they want to have trust in their child, but a lot of them say, ‘I had no idea’ or that they ‘didn’t know what to look for.’”
Belleau said incidents of bullying come in waves. It lessens as people talk about the issue and are more aware of it.
“Anyone can be a victim of a bully,” Belleau said. “But we have to make the kids know the more they are involved and are informed, the less likely they are to deal with it on their own.”