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Bullying issue still growing in schools

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The bullying epidemic continues, even as a multi-pronged crackdown by states and educators gathers steam. For nine months, I dealt first-hand with the bullying issue almost every school day. The problem most assuredly is out there, and across the nation steps are being taken to focus on it.

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I virtually "lived" the bullying issue -- and its tragic impact -- from September 2011 through June 1 when I did a special national tour of schools of all levels in my non-writing incarnation as a comic ventriloquist, something I've done for 22 years. From Sept. 12 to June 1, I did programs at 260 schools, driving more than 45,000 miles. Schools could choose their theme -- and 95 percent of the school requested my no-teasing/no-bullying show.

As I criss-crossed the country in my 2004 Chevrolet Venture van, doing shows at schools with as many as 1,500 students to as few as 20 -- schools nestled high in the mountains, in crowded inner cities, schools framed by snowstorms or air-conditioned due to blistering desert heat -- I talked to hundreds of students and educators. Some tidbits:

States are cracking down h-a-r-d: Bullying horror stories led to tough laws where teachers, principals and districts can find themselves in legal and career hot water if they fail to act swiftly on bullying when it's spotted. Several principals were away when I arrived at their schools due to important district or regional huddles on bullying.

Bullying builds grieving communities: I visited three schools in communities shattered by shocking suicides of high school or middle school students due to bullying. In one school, a principal asked me to be very careful about my message since there could be siblings or other relatives in my audience.

School communities actively shunning bullies have seen some success: One counselor at an elementary school told me about a unique approach. If the kids saw bullying or were bullied they were told to tell the offending kid, "Stop! We don't want or need bullying at OUR school!" They said this community cooperation from students greatly decreased the problem. One principal tells kids: "If you stop when someone yells stop, you are not a bully."

Younger and meaner: Some educators expressed surprise about how mean some kids are at younger ages. Their view: it may come from watching increasingly violent media in a society that considers it entertainment to watch a movie or TV show depicting people being brutally beaten, raped or murdered in imaginative, graphic ways. Parents keeping little kids from watching violent fare are not too plentiful these days.

Some parents are abusing the issue: Several principals have had big problems with parents demanding students be punished, suspended or expelled for small things that aren't bullying but they insist are. These parents call the school or demand to meet with principals, and the word "bullying" has become a kind of catch-word for them. One principal told of how a parent demanded another student be punished for bullying because he had told her son that his shoes looked old and he needed new ones. Several principals asked me to talk about not being "mean" and the importance of "kindness" and NOT use the word "bullying," because some parents are twisting the word's meaning.

Kids are aware: Students of all ages would come up to me after a program and tell me of their experiences.

Why suicides? Since September, three people asked me the same exact question. "When we were kids why was it that if someone was bullied they didn't commit suicide then?" I got the same answer from several principals and a writer: "Part of it may be today's media coverage. Most likely it did happen then, but the connection wasn't made and it wasn't reported in those days."

The general consensus? There needs to be swift consequences to teach bullies that bullying -- whether by kids or adults -- is not a smart, moral or wise choice. And those who see it and don't speak up are part of the problem -- and just as bad as the bullies.

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Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He can be reached at jgandelman@themoderatevoice.com.

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