I've written a few columns about bullying, and the topic never fails to elicit an impassioned response.
For the most part, the feedback from parents, educators and others in the community reveals wide agreement that we all have a part to play in understanding the nature of bullying and in trying to reduce it.
There are the occasional respondents who argue that the recent focus on bullying shows only that we've turned into a nation of wimps, and that encounters with bullies can be solved simply by a swift sock on the jaw.
But those attitudes, hopefully, are increasingly in the minority as awareness grows about the complexity and lasting damage of bullying.
Recently, I've had the opportunity to have some illuminating conversations with current and former Orange County Department of Education employees who have overseen anti-bullying campaigns.
They raise important points.
First, it's clear that there are effective, research-based, results-oriented ways to reduce bullying. But there are also significant obstacles to the widespread use of these programs, chief among them financial considerations and the intense competition for educators' time and resources.
We've come a long way in understanding bullying, and now know that it is rarely a simple, one-sided affair in which a big, mean kid picks on a vulnerable target. Bullies are often victims themselves — experts actually prefer the term "target" to "victim" — and have a range of complex motivations for picking on others.
Much has also been learned about the potentially devastating effects of bullying, including depression, truancy, falling grades and possibly self-harming behavior. We're also beginning to glean a better understanding of the changes in the landscape due to the potential for 24-hour-a-day harassment through electronic media.
Another point that has been emphasized to me is that anyone could be a bully, or at least contribute to a bullying culture. That means that education and training programs at schools, to be effective, must include everyone — students, teachers, parents, coaches, support staff, even bus drivers.
"If you want to change the culture at a school, you have to work with everyone at the school. You really have to train the adults too," said Linda Kearns, who retired two years ago as prevention coordinator at the Orange County Department of Education.
She pointed to some well-researched bullying-prevention programs, such as Steps to Respect, which call for comprehensive, interactive efforts to improve the environment for all students. Such programs focus not just on addressing negative behavior, but are largely concerned with encouraging young people and adults to be compassionate and respectful of others, and to feel free to speak out if they see others being ill-treated.
The programs include teaching conflict resolution, reasonable ways to channel feelings and means to draw out kids who might be in need of ongoing support. Partnerships are formed with school-based organizations that encourage good citizenship, character building and forging bonds of friendship among diverse groups.
But as effective as these programs have proven, they face strong headwinds.
As with anything in education, money is always an issue. Bullying prevention programs are typically funded by grants from federal or state sources, but those funding streams are inherently unstable. Many are short-lived, or come with strings attached.
Federal dollars through the No Child Left Behind Act dried up a few years ago, and state money previously available has been redirected to other initiatives and to addressing basic school needs throughout the long financial crisis. Even now that California's fiscal condition is improving, schools have a long way to go to dig out from years of cutbacks, meaning that discretionary programs suchas bullying abatement get short shrift.
Christine Laehle, an Education Department program specialist who works on bullying issues throughout Orange County, said she has funding for those efforts only through June. Kearns noted that some anti-bullying information and materials can be accessed by schools at no cost, but there's another factor to consider: In education, time is just as precious as money.
There are only so many hours in a school day, and a lot of difficult decisions go into how best to spend them. Bullying-prevention programs must vie for time and training resources against other worthwhile initiatives, not to mention tough new teaching standards and a system that places test scores at a premium.
With so many competing pressures, combating bullying often ranks low on the list of priorities.
"The No. 1 thing I hear is time," said Stacy Deeble-Reynolds, prevention coordinator at the Department of Education. "We try to get teachers to find ways to include it into whatever they're already teaching, by weaving in, for example, a writing prompt about what to do if someone's picked on."
But it remains an uphill battle. At least in this, we are fortunate to have dedicated employees at the county level working diligently to keep the fight going, driven by the knowledge that throughout our schools, sitting in quiet desperation at the back of classrooms, are kids who can be reached before it's too late.
Producing strong, healthy, well-rounded citizens isn't just about test scores. It won't be easy, but it's imperative that our schools play their part and find a way to keep anti-bullying programs alive.
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.