Bullies, be gone!
How much does bullying happen in Port Aransas schools, and how do school employees deal with it? The answers to those questions depend on whom you’re talking to and how you define bullying.
Three students have told the South Jetty they have been bullied in Port Aransas schools. One said that he was the victim of repeated insults by a clique of kids in his class. A boy in the clique had a habit of grabbing him by a shoulder and squeezing hard at a “pressure point.” One day, the bully squeezed so hard that
“ it left a bruise, according to the boy and his mother.
“ Another mother said her son was the victim of so much taunting over a period of months that he became withdrawn, his grades fell and he didn’t want to go to school.
Yet another mother said a boy repeatedly bullied her son by smacking him in the head, and knocking his books out of his hands. One day, she said, the bully grabbed her son by the neck, threw him to the ground and threatened to kill him.
The parents weren’t entirely happy with how school employees handled the incidents. Asked for their response, school officials said they wouldn’t discuss specific students’ cases with the South Jetty, in order to preserve student confidentiality.
Local educators did answer questions about the general topic of bullying. Some said bullying isn’t happening at all; others say it seldom happens, and when it does, the incidents are relatively minor, with school workers doing their best to adddress the incidents quickly and fairly.
When the South Jetty e-mailed questions about bullying on Aug. 26 to Port Aransas Independent School District administrators, Superintendent Sharon Doughty was among those who responded.
“I can say right now with certainty that, other than the normal teasing, picking on each other-type activities that children/students do, I have not heard of any bullying, the level of seriousness as is addressed in the law and leads to serious discipline consequences, taking place in our schools,” Doughty wrote in an e-mail.
The South Jetty asked how much all varieties of bullying – not jut the kinds that lead to serious disciplinary consequences – have been reported at each campus.
“I don’t have that information, and neither do the principals,” Doughty responded in an e-mail.
The superintendent did offer some information generated by the Texas Education Agency, which collects “discipline data” from Port Aransas schools and school districts throughout the state.
But the TEA information isn’t very telling, because Port Aransas schools don’t count bullying incidents separately when they submit their numbers to the TEA. Bullying is lumped in with other kinds of bad-conduct reports, Doughty said.
Doughty said PAISD numbers submitted to the TEA showed that Port Aransas schools during the 2009-10 school year saw:
• Twenty-four incidents in which the district’s code of conduct was violated and students were issued out-of-school suspensions;
• Forty-seven incidents in which students were issued in-school suspensions for violations of the code of conduct;
• Four incidents in which the code of conduct was violated and students were placed in District Alternative Education Placement, or DAEP.
Doughty doesn’t deny that conflicts between students pop up in Port Aransas. But she said those incidents are dealt with by school employees and by Port Aransas’s close-knit community at large before the situations can develop into something that could be called bullying.
Doughty said she considers bullying to be “a serious series of the same, repetitive picking-on behavior” that demands higher-level disciplinary action.
“And that,” Doughty said, “I don’t see here.”
Bullying has become a hot topic all over the country in recent months. A big part of what sparked national discussion was the death of Phoebe Prince, a 15- year-old Massachusetts girl who hanged herself earlier this year after what authorities said was a days-long barrage of bullying by other teen-agers. Criminal charges later were filed against nine youths in connection with the death.
In August, the Corpus Christi Independent School District implemented an initiative that includes staff training on bullying and an online bullying reporting system.
At H.G. Olsen Elementary School, Principal Pat Nelson said she hasn’t seen “any type of bullying” at her school since she took office in August.
“I have checked with several personnel on Olsen’s campus, and they report they have had no cases of bullying on this campus,” Nelson said.
Sylvia Buttler was principal at Olsen from June 2004 to June this year, when she resigned to become principal of Flour Bluff Primary School. She said allegations of bullying surfaced some, but not often during her tenure. When accusations did come up, they were dealt with as quickly and fairly as possible, she said.
“It was never left unaddressed,” Buttler said. “If any parent didn’t feel like it was handled correctly, then why didn’t they go over my head, to my superiors? That’s the protocol.”
Sometimes, it’s hard for school officials to prove that bullying happened, even after getting a report from a student who said he was bullied. When an incident isn’t witnessed by an adult, it often can be just one kid’s word against that of another, and it’s hard to take action against an accused bully under those circumstances.
When that’s the case, Buttler said, she told teachers to watch the alleged bullies closely.
“I told them, ‘When you’re out on that playground, please keep your eyes open,’ ” Buttler said.
Buttler said punishment for bullying and similar misbehavior wasn’t unknown at her campus. She said she has, for example, sent students to ISS – in-school suspension – for making threats to beat someone up, without blows ever actually being thrown.
In ISS, students are sent to a classroom separate from the rest of their classmates, and they do school work there, under the supervision of a teacher’s aid or substitute teacher. ISS can last for more than a day.
Parents of both the victim and bully were notified when there was an allegation, whether the allegation was substantiated or not, Buttler said. Student confidentiality laws prevent school officials from telling parents of bullying victims what specific punishments bullies get, she said.
“All I say is, ‘There have been consequences,” Buttler said.
Asked how much bullying happens at Brundrett Middle School, Principal Gina McKeever said, “I would say there really aren’t any cases of it.”
McKeever, who started as BMS principal at the beginning of the 2009- 10 school year, said she has seen only “conflict with kids where one kid might say something to another kid, and as soon as we catch onto it, we’re on it.”
BMS addresses minor situations “before it turns into bullying,” McKeever said.
McKeever said not all mistreatment by one student against another can be called bullying. It’s not bullying unless one party has more power than the other, she said.
McKeever said school employees encourage students and their parents to communicate with the school about concerns and incidents, so any misbehavior can be nipped in the bud before it becomes chronic.
BMS this year instituted an “advisory class.” Every staff member has an advisory group of students that meets for 15 minutes every three weeks. They met every day for the first week of school.
The advisory group gathers to build good relationships and keep kids informed about all things school-related, whether it’s policies, events or other matters, McKeever said. Bullying could be a topic for discussion, she said.
Every student in school is in the advisory classes, and administrators have purposely mixed different grade levels into each advisory class, to expose students to varying perspectives.
In the spring, a specialist from the Education Service Center in Corpus Christi put on a workshop for BMS employees at the PAISD administration building to talk about bullying prevention. All BMS employees attended, McKeever said.
BMS also has a counselor specifically dedicated to working at BMS this year. Previously, the school didn’t have its own counselor, instead sharing one with Olsen Elementary School.
The BMS counselor, Mary Montelongo, is working to get the message out to students that when they see something that seems inappropriate, they need to report it.
“It’s so that we don’t have people simply being bystanders,” McKeever said. “To improve the climate, we all need to be a part of the solution.”
McKeever said she wouldn’t discuss specific cases, in order to preserve students’ confidentiality.
Sharon McKinney, who became principal of Port Aransas High School in mid-spring in the 2009-10 school year, said she knows of no bullying that has happened at PAHS since her arrival.
Travis Longanecker, who served as principal at PAHS from 2006 to spring this year and BMS from 2004 to 2006, said bullying has happened at both schools. But, he said, it probably doesn’t happen as much in Port Aransas as at most other school districts. He said he never saw severe injuries due to bullying.
PAISD’s small size helps, he said.
“I think there’s a pretty strong sense of family,” said Longanecker, who resigned in the spring to become assistant superintendent of the Bushland Independent School District, in the Amarillo area. Everyone knows each other and, to an extent looks out for each other.
Longanecker said he saw more “cyber bullying” than in-person bullying – students pushing other students around by use of text messaging and on social networking Web sites.
There’s a distinction to be drawn between fighting and bullying. But, Longanecker said, “a lot of times, if you had a fight, it was the result of a kid getting picked on until he couldn’t take it anymore.”
Consequences of bullying have ranged from counseling to being ordered to stay after school to getting citations from police, Longanecker said. Students in the past have received tickets for disorderly conduct, a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine but no jail time, he said.
Counseling is especially important, Longanecker said. Punishment alone usually won’t solve the problem, he said.
“It’s important to try to get them to understand their impact on the victim of the bullying and try to get them to understand they could easily have been that victim,” Longanecker said.
Teachers and administrators must be vigilant, he said.
“You had to stay on top of it, because bullies had tendencies to do it repeatedly,” he said.
School employees must keep their eyes and ears open to prevent bullying before it happens, he said.
“Key in a place like Port Aransas is knowing your students,” Longanecker said. “You’re walking the hallways. You understand the dynamics of the student body. You pick up on voices and tones of voice.”
“We as a staff work to keep all students safe at school by being visible during passing periods and encouraging students to treat each other with respect,” McKinney said.
Students must understand that they can go to teachers and administrators and counselors and that they can speak confidentially, Longanecker said. School workers also must watch to make sure bullies don’t go back to exact revenge on their victims after their victims talk to school authorities, he said.