Meaner bullying is stirring new tactics

Times Staff Writer

Gizelle Studevent was a 13-year-old eighth-grader at prestigious La Jolla Country Day School when the harassment began. She returned from a basketball tournament to find an unsigned note in her suitcase: Addressed to "Senorita," it mocked the girl's skills on the court and suggested she go home to Mexico.

Over more than two years, an anonymous band of bullies tormented Gizelle. Their acts grew increasingly cruel -- on the Internet, in notes and around school. Finally, she transferred.

"I would go home and cry every day," said Gizelle, now a junior at private Bishops School in La Jolla. "It was horrible. The scary thing for me was, what was next? What was going to happen?"

The 17-year-old is among a growing number of students who are reporting that they are victims of bullying, according to educators and experts. And bullying -- once largely restricted to stolen lunch money or hallway shoving that was taken somewhat lightly -- has grown increasingly serious, officials, parents and students say.

Today, parents are filing lawsuits against students and schools for failing to protect their children, administrators are taking stronger disciplinary action against perpetrators and a virtual industry of anti-bullying programs has sprung up. Educators, who coined the phrase "cyber-bullying" for online attacks, have increased teacher training and say they are on the lookout for symptoms of victimization or bullying behavior.

In 2005, 28% of students age 12 to 18 reported being bullied in the previous six months -- double the figure from four years earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The true figure is almost certainly higher; experts believe underreporting is rampant.

The consequences can be devastating and even deadly, as in the slaying of 15-year-old Lawrence King at an Oxnard middle school. The teenager was shot in the head Feb. 12 in a classroom after being harassed by some classmates when he disclosed that he was gay.

State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), who pushed through legislation that added new protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender, said educators must act immediately to stop the first aggressive acts. Allowing this behavior to go unchallenged creates an environment in which it is seen as acceptable, allowing it to escalate, she said.

"They need to remove people that are doing this and deal with them and not turn a blind eye," Kuehl said. "These are not just youthful high jinks; these are dangerous situations."

Administrators and teachers were once reluctant to get involved, but that attitude has changed, most urgently after two bullied Columbine High School students massacred 12 classmates and a teacher before killing themselves in 1999.

Victims of bullying are at greater risk than their peers of skipping school, dropping out, getting lower grades and taking weapons weapon to campus. The constant abuse can lead them to change their daily behavior -- they are more likely to avoid certain parts of campus, such as restrooms or the cafeteria. Some become introverted or depressed.

Bullying is "a life-changing event," said Bakersfield attorney Ralph Wegis, who often represents students in cases against school districts.

"We're all familiar with the damage that can be done by physical assault or rape, but these school bullying cases are very much akin to those kinds of damages," he said.

Wegis recently filed a lawsuit against the Kern High School District and several students on behalf of a teenager who he said was terrorized on a trip to a debate team competition. Staying in a hotel with Stockdale High School teammates, the then-14-year-old was allegedly bound with duct tape and plastic food wrap from his ankles to his shoulders. His mouth was taped shut, and his teammates took pictures and urinated on his clothing, Wegis said. The lawsuit is in the discovery phase; the district and its attorney declined to comment.

For Gizelle, the harassment took its toll. While she worked hard to keep up her grades and her skills on the basketball court, she became withdrawn and didn't easily trust people.

Her parents constantly told her that it wasn't her fault. To cheer her up, her mother, Evelyn Sullivan, would take her out for manicures, and her father, Ray Studevent, would slip $20 and a supportive note into the armrest of her car. They tried to convince her to transfer.

"I felt like she needed to move on," Studevent said. "She had been through enough."

But when Gizelle refused, the bullying grew more brazen. When she returned home from a Midwest recruiting trip during her sophomore year, she found a note taped to her locker: "Notre Dame? Bitch shut up."

The final straw -- when her name was posted on scores of pornographic websites -- forced her to transfer this fall.

"No kid should go through that," Gizelle said.

The son of Hollywood producer Lee Caplin also left school after receiving online death threats from bullies. The then-15-year-old attended prestigious Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles and was pursuing an acting career. When some classmates discovered the website of a movie the teen was starring in, they posted remarks such as "I'm going to pound your head with an ice pick."

After talking with law enforcement, Caplin transferred his son to a private school in Carmel and sued the school and the classmates who posted the expletive-laced messages. The case against the school was dismissed; Caplin is appealing. He has settled with parents of some of the classmates and is continuing his suit against others. The son, who is not identified in court papers, is now a college student in Los Angeles.

School officials did not return calls seeking comment.

Educators are increasingly weighing in, trying to change schools' culture so that bullying becomes unacceptable among students.

The Los Angeles Unified School District trains teachers about cyber-bullying and warns parents about its dangers. New programs to teach children respect for one another began this school year at Roman Catholic schools in Riverside and San Bernardino counties and at public schools in Orange County.

It's unclear how successful these efforts are -- particularly if the bullying happens online or off campus.

Experts insist more can be done. Because administrators face many obstacles in punishing students during off-campus activities, school violence expert Derek Randel suggests that schools require students who participate in extracurricular activities to sign pledges that specifically ban online bullying. Schools have used such contracts to curb student drinking.

Anonymous ways for students to report harassment, including telephone hot lines, may allow students to alert adults, without fear of retribution, when they or their friends are being bullied, he said.

Increased supervision in cafeterias, locker rooms and hallways is also key, Wegis said.

That's where Gizelle and her family say educators failed them. Despite pleas from her parents for an investigation, no student was ever punished.

Evidence suggested Gizelle's teammates were to blame for at least some of the anonymous notes -- one was mailed from Phoenix, where the team was attending a tournament, and it was written on stationery from the team hotel.

Christopher Schuck, head of La Jolla Country Day, said officials tried hard to find the culprits; notes had also been sent to two teammates. The notes were analyzed by handwriting experts who concluded that they were written by two or more people but couldn't connect them to a basketball player, he said. Law enforcement was notified about the online bullying.

"I understand the parents' frustration, because she's a good kid and it was a troubling story," he said.

As the school year continued, Gizelle's parents grew increasingly angry. Ray Studevent stopped attending his daughter's games. And Gizelle finally agreed to her parents' pleas to transfer.

She beams when she talks about her new school, and her parents say the change in their daughter's confidence and mood is undeniable.

"Once the bullying stopped, she blossomed as a young lady," Studevent said. "I've never seen her laugh so much."

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Schools push back against bullying

As reports of bullying have increased and the consequences grown far more serious, educators across Southern California have launched efforts to fight such harassment in their schools.

Diocese of San Bernardino

Launched the "Respect Whom God Has Made" program in Roman Catholic schools in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Bishop Gerald R. Barnes delivered a videotaped message about bullying to students, and teachers incorporated messages about bullying, teasing and harassment into their lesson plans. Students are also asked to sign a pledge promising not to bully their peers. One group of middle school students used the information to create a play about how to deal with bullying that they presented to elementary-age students at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Indio.

Los Angeles Unified School District

Started training teachers about the warning signs of bullying in 2006. The following year, students at Garfield High School held a youth summit on Internet safety and cyberbullying, and the district began talking to parents about cyberbullying during computer safety workshops.

Capistrano Unified School District

At Newhart Middle School, educators started the school year by putting a "Bully Box" in the library, where students can slip notes reporting teasing and hurt feelings without having to approach an adult. Some reports are anonymous, some are written by victims, and others are from bystanders who observed situations that made them uncomfortable. Notes in the box led to meetings with 75 students during the first semester. And at Las Flores Middle School, educators staged the first-ever "Respect Begins With Me Week" in February. During the morning student-produced newscast, students interviewed pairs of friends and counselors, discussed cyberbullying and acted out bullying scenarios. At lunch, student government members and others held games to reinforce the topic of the day, and during the afternoon, teachers led classroom discussions. Short weekly follow-up activities are planned for the rest of school year.

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Source: Reporting by Times staff writer Seema Mehta

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