District takes bullying seriously

Last month's march against bullying by a group of San Clemente High School students near Main Beach was as much a visible reminder of this type of harassment and its severe consequences as it was a call to eradicate it from society.

And as recent allegations of bullying between two Miami Dolphins players reveal, bullying can occur between people of any age.

Laguna Beach Unified school officials take bullying seriously and employ many strategies to nip the offense in the bud.

Communication among teachers, aides and staff is critical to halt bullying in its tracks, according to Thurston Middle School Principal Jenny Salberg.

"We're as good as the info given to us," Salberg said.

In some cases, arranging a meeting where both kids are in the same room to talk can rectify the situation.

What often occurs is that the alleged bully doesn't know he or she offended or hurt the other person, Salberg said.

"Nine times out of 10, [the alleged perpetrator] will say, 'I had no idea [I was hurting you]. I was just having fun,'" Salberg said.

She said recognizing when a student could have been bullied is also important at Thurston, which teaches sixth through eighth grades.

"We do an outstanding job of noticing triggers: Do grades drop? Is there a change of friends? Is the person withdrawing?" Salberg said. "You have to provide avenues of support that best suit each kid to grow socially. Most kids are trying to figure out who they are and are learning various social cues, such as when to be funny, serious or firm."

Salberg differentiated bullying from bothering.

"Bullying is ongoing; bothering is a one-time offense," she said.

The perpetrator is usually trying to exert his or her authority over another person, said Jami Parsons, district counselor for El Morro and Top of the World elementary schools.

"Usually a bully doesn't feel good about him or herself and wants to make themselves feel more powerful," said Parsons, who has counseled in Laguna Beach Unified for nine years.

Bullying has always existed, but has received more attention in the last few years, according to Parsons.

"There's a heightened awareness through the media and there's a lower tolerance level [for bullying]," Parsons said.

Bullying manifests in multiple ways, offen varying between boys and girls, according to Parsons.

Girls tend to display relational aggression to establish authority, Parsons said.

"Girls may make fun of what other girls are wearing, or their hair, or exclude another girl," Parsons said. "Boys make fun of skills and abilities related to sports. A boy might say, 'You can't be on my team.'

"That said, I have not seen an increase this year at the elementary level. A huge part is creating a positive and safe climate."

Laguna Beach Unified officials suspended one student for bullying in the 2011-12 school year, according to the California Department of Education website.

Parsons alluded to programs districtwide that promote kindness, such as Rachel's Challenge at Top of the World and Character Counts at El Morro.

Last year Top of the World students exceeded their goal of 6,000 acts of kindness as part of Rachel's Challenge, a nonprofit that honors people who are kind and compassionate.

El Morro students are encouraged to embrace pillars of trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship through the Character Counts program.

During grade-level assemblies at the beginning of the school year, El Morro students learn what bullying is, how to recognize it and ways to report an alleged offense, according to El Morro Principal Chris Duddy.

"The first thing is defining what bullying is and what it isn't," Duddy said. "A dispute on the playground is not bullying. Bullying is a repeated, unwanted behavior that tries to intimidate someone and making somebody feel better than the victim."

El Morro officials teach a program called Stop, Talk and Walk.

"First thing students need to do is tell the other person they don't like whatever they're doing and need to stop," Duddy explained. "Other times, they need to talk about and use I statements such as, 'I don't like it when you...' If that doesn't work, then we get help from an adult."

Teachers follow-up throughout the year with classroom discussions, and students read grade-appropriate stories on bullying.

Duddy has noticed a decrease in the number of bullying reports since administrators started using these strategies three years ago, he said.

School officials placed a greater emphasis on educating students about bullying and its harmful effects after Daniel Mendez, a San Clemente High student, committed suicide in 2009. Mendez's family believes Daniel was the victim of repeated bullying.

Bullying causes depression, anxiety, physical ailments, loss of self-esteem, misdirected anger at family or friends and self-hatred, and it can ultimately lead to suicide, according to the National Assn. of People Against Bullying website.

In response to his death, Daniel's parents formed NAPAB, a nonprofit that offers services such as in-person meetings, phone calls and written correspondence in an effort to intervene on behalf of bullied children, the website said.

Bullied children are three times more likely to harm themselves or commit suicide, it said.

Laguna Beach Unified has a policy that addresses bullying and consequences for perpetrators.

"No student or group of students shall, through physical, written, verbal or other means, harass, sexually harass, threaten, intimidate, cyberbully, cause bodily injury to or commit hate violence against any other student or school personnel," according to the district's policy.

"Any student who engages in bullying on school premises or off campus in a manner that causes or is likely to cause a substantial disruption of a school activity or school attendance, shall be subject to discipline, which may include suspension or expulsion, in accordance with district policies and regulations."

Salberg pointed to a real-life example as proof that anti-bullying efforts are working.

In October, two eighth-graders, with help from three classmates, stood up for a sixth-grader who was picked on while riding the bus, Salberg said.

Thurston students are emphasizing respect and care through the United in Kindness campaign, a monthly, student-led effort that, as the name implies, fosters kindness.

Students organized a chalk drawing earlier this month.

"It's about finding a place for kids to be involved," Salberg said. "I want to empower kids to stand up for themselves."

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