Newest HB Reads selection focuses on bullying

Next year, as in the past, the HB Reads program will spotlight a group of people who are often invisible in everyday life.

This time, though, they won't be miles away in Sudan or Afghanistan, toiling on a migrant farm or secluded in a special-education class.

The citywide reading program, which selects a book every year with a diversity and human-rights theme, has turned its attention for next year to victims of bullying — a group that may include countless members of the readership, even if they don't let their credentials show.

Jay Asher's "Thirteen Reasons Why," a 2007 novel about a teenager who commits suicide and leaves tape-recorded messages explaining to 13 people why she chose to end her life, will be the program's sixth offering this fall and the coming winter.

The HB Reads program will officially kick off with a reception at 7 p.m. Oct. 10 at the Huntington Beach Central Library. The regular events, which typically include children's workshops, discussions and at least one film screening, will start after the new year and end with an author visit at Huntington Beach High School on March 21.

Fred Provencher, the founder of HB Reads, said his committee was inspired to choose Asher's novel partly because of several recent national news stories about bullying. Still, Provencher considers bullying a largely invisible problem — at least for those whose cases don't land on the cover of People or Time.

"We always try to find something that will make people think," he said. "I think the subject of bullying is very common, and yet it doesn't get publicized as often as I think it might."


A hard group to classify

According to the Huntington Beach Human Relations Task Force, which formed in the 1990s and later spawned HB Reads, that statement applies to Surf City as much as any other location.

In May, the group compiled a study, based on interviews with law enforcement, school officials and others, that concluded that 28% to 30% of Huntington Beach children are involved in bullying either as victim or perpetrator.

The City Council asked the task force to conduct the study and make a recommendation on whether the city needed an anti-bullying ordinance. Ultimately, the task force determined than an ordinance wasn't necessary, but suggested the city take several other measures, including an annual bullying survey, community awareness events and a city-wide reporting system.

The task force report lists three essential components of bullying — imbalance of power, intent to cause harm and repetition — as well as many forms it can take: verbal, physical, social and more. Still, a bullying victim may be harder to identify than a Lost Boy of Sudan.

The Huntington Beach Police Department, quoted in the report, noted that many students fail to report peer abuse and that the term "bullying" is often overused or attributed to behaviors that don't meet the standard definition.

Even some of the cases that attracted nationwide attention have drawn second looks. After Massachusetts high school student Phoebe Prince committed suicide in 2010 allegedly due to bullying, Slate journalist Emily Bazelon published an investigative report concluding that Phoebe was partly responsible for the conflicts and that her classmates' cruel treatment had been exaggerated.

Likewise, a Time story in March outlined the difficulty school officials have in determining who's responsible for playground spats. Reporter John Cloud noted that "the world isn't cleanly divided into bullies and victims" and cited numbers indicating overlap between the two groups.


'It's invisible and visible'

California has passed anti-bullying legislation more than once in recent years. At the same time, Huntington Councilman Joe Carchio, who requested the task force study, has an anti-bullying initiative in the works that he hopes will attack the problem on a grass-roots level.

The program, titled "Be a Buddy, Not a Bully," would encourage better student relations at Huntington schools. Carchio said he is still working out the format and has met with attorneys, life coaches and others to get ideas. Whatever form the program takes, Carchio wants students to be heavily involved in its implementation.

He added that he was pleased with the upcoming HB Reads selection, which he, like Provencher, believes will address an underreported problem.

"It's invisible and visible," Carchio said. "It's invisible to the people who just want to put blinders on and say it's not happening, but it's not that way to the kid who's being bullied for five years."

Huntington Beach Union High School District Supt. Greg Plutko, who has met with Carchio about the "Buddy" project, said he welcomes any solution to bullying, whether from Sacramento or a student club. He noted that the schools in his district have hosted assemblies and formed student groups to address peer conflicts, among other measures.

And while Plutko acknowledged that bullying often occurs naturally with growing up, he stressed that that was no reason to shrug it off.

"Bullying should never be minimized, regardless of whatever definition people try to place upon it or how organizations try to categorize it," he said. "The bottom line is, it's serious."

Twitter: @MichaelMillerHB

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