Bullying takes its toll

Robynn Leidig on Wednesday stood in front of a classroom of seventh-graders at Toll Middle School as their raised hands began to paint an all too common picture of verbal, cyber, emotional and sexual bullying.

Leidig, a health educator with Planned Parenthood, then began outlining ways to appropriately respond, including notifying a trusted adult.

"I think it is good that teachers come to say, 'It is OK, we are with you, don't be afraid,'" said Toll seventh grader Dianna Sukiasyan, 12.

The lesson, which was taking place in several classrooms throughout the school, also served as a training opportunity for school officials and community leaders on how to recognize and react to antagonistic behavior.

It was the culmination of a three-day anti-bullying program, spearheaded by Bully Me Not, a community organization established last year to address bullying. Thirty-one teachers, counselors and community members received training from SuEllen Fried, a nationally recognized bullying expert, skills they put to the test at Toll on Wednesday.

"It gives you more confidence…if it ever happens again," Toll seventh-grader Angel Acosta said of the tools he learned during the class.

Bullying has emerged as a national issue following several high-profile incidents. Early last year, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself after allegedly being bullied at her South Hadley, Mass., high school. And in September, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi jumped off a bridge, allegedly because his Rutgers University roommate streamed a romantic encounter with a male friend live on the Internet.

Glendale Unified has not been immune to allegations of bullying at its school sites. In October, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights issued a decision stating the district had "failed to provide a prompt and equitable response" to allegations of sexual harassment lodged in 2007 by a then-Crescenta Valley High School student. In her complaint, the student alleged that she been the target of repeated and aggressive sexual taunting by schoolmates on the Internet and at school.

Glendale Unified Supt. Richard Sheehan said the district takes all allegations of bullying seriously and is constantly working to improve policies. He described the decision from the Office for Civil Rights as a "learning opportunity," and said the district will work with the federal agency to offer additional training to employees in the coming year.

At a packed parent forum at the Glendale Unified School District offices on Tuesday, the conversation touched on everything from sending sexually suggestive cellular text messages — known as "sexting" — to the responsibility of parents and school officials to intervene when they observe instances of bullying.

"I think it is imperative that the parent does take action to stop this," said Glendale Police Det. Ernesto Gaxiola, a panelist on the forum.

Community stakeholders said that they don't want to see a local child on the cover of national magazines as a victim of a suicide triggered by bullying.

"I think [bullying] is something that has hit everybody in the face, they can't deny that it is something that needs to be addressed," said Dominique Lopez, the mother of a third-grader at R.D. White Elementary School.

Featured speaker Fritz Coleman, a Glendale resident and weatherman for NBC 4, recalled being harassed for all of sixth grade. The bully would taunt him, sometimes following him part way home from school, Coleman said.

He had trouble sleeping, and would occasionally ditch class to avoid him.

"It was an awful time," Coleman said.

Being bullied is an experience that can shape someone for life, said therapist and panelist Linda Goodman Pillsbury.

"These are experiences that stick with us, and they stick with us for a long, long time," she said.

While Glendale Unified strives to create a safe student environment, bullying is more than just a school issue, it is a community issue, said school board member Nayiri Nahabedian.

"Words keep children out of school," she said. "There are many, many students who actually stay home from school because they are afraid of…being called names, being harassed, being assaulted, being threatened, being bullied."

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