In recent months, national news networks have spotlighted bullying incidents in schools and colleges, including extreme cases where students have been injured or even committed suicide.
The Liberty County School System, however, appears to have bucked that trend. School officials have said that excessive bullying is currently not a point of concern for students or administrators in the county’s elementary, middle or high schools.
Tribunal reports provided by the school system show only five cases of threatening and/or intimidating behavior that resulted in students being expelled, enrolled in an alternative school or put on probation for this school year.
“Some students are more sensitive than others and cannot take bullying. This is why it is so important that lines of communication stay open and parents and teachers listen carefully to what their students are saying,” Superintendent Dr. Judy Scherer said. “It is critical to get help immediately and not just think it will go away.”
According to the Liberty County School System student information and code of conduct book, which each student receives at the beginning of a school year, “Bullying is defined by Georgia law as any willful attempt or threat to inflict injury on another person, when accompanied by an apparent present ability to do so, or any intentional display of force such as would give the victim reason to fear or expect immediate bodily harm.”
The handbook — also given to newly enrolled students — spells out the consequences of bullying others. “A student who harasses and/or intimidates others may be suspended from school. A student who participates in a fight will be suspended from school. When a student initiating a fight is identified by authorities, the administrator may use his/her discretion in administering differentiated disciplinary actions. A student who repeatedly fights or engages in threats, harassment, intimidation, bullying, or gang activity will be suspended for up to 10 school days for each incident, and may be referred to a disciplinary tribunal. Charges may be filed with the appropriate law enforcement agency,” the book states.
Even though Liberty County’s educational institutions appear to be relatively safe compared with schools that have struggled under media scrutiny to combat such issues, the grandmother of one former Liberty County High School student said that even one bullying incident is one too many.
Mary Buchanan claims the bully who pushed her grandson to tears almost daily received a “slap on the wrist” as his punishment, which, to her, did not fit the crime or make up for the pain she said the older student caused her grandson.
“It left us little choice but to pull my grandson out of the school,” said Buchanan of the harassment her loved one endured.
Before the incidents, her grandson was a B student who was involved in several school activities. But once a bully started tearing down her grandson’s reputation, Buchanan said, his self-esteem plummeted and he changed schools.
“Kids don’t tell when they’re being bullied because they’re afraid they’re going be bullied back [again],” she said. “You have to walk a mile in these children’s shoes to understand what’s going on with them.”
In August, Congress enacted a bill titled the Safe Schools Improvement Act of 2010 that was introduced before being turned over to the Senate committee.
According to the Library of Congress website, the act amends the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act to require “states to use grants for safe and drug-free schools to collect and report information on the incidence of bullying and harassment; and local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools to use sub grants to prevent and respond to incidents of bullying and harassment.”
The act also requires “such LEAs or schools to notify parents and students annually of conduct prohibited in their school discipline policies that now must include bullying and harassment; and establish grievance procedures for students and parents to register complaints regarding such conduct.”
Even with such acts in place, Buchanan feels the school system should punish bullies more severely to discourage students from picking on their peers.
To her, she said, justice was not served.
“People just need to understand this is going on and when parents are contacted, they need to start taking it seriously,” she said. “We try to teach our kids that words can’t really harm you, but I’m afraid they can.”
The superintendent said that teachers and counselors are trained to work with students in groups and on an individual basis to prevent and address bullying. Every school has a counselor and each high school has four. Additionally, each middle and high school has a counselor supplied, on a temporary basis, by the military. The counselors are available to meet with students at any time to discuss bullying issues.
“As for the causes of bullying, I think there are many — modeling behavior of the grown-ups around them, then kids will follow that example. Many students are insecure and bullying others makes them feel big or important,” Scherer said. “Many students lack social skills and don’t know of other ways to handle conflict. The best way parents can keep their children from bullying is to help them be secure in who they are and to teach appropriate interpersonal skills.”
Buchanan agreed that open communication between parents and students is the best way to find out about troubles at school.
“Parents need to step up to the plate. When they see a change in attitude in their child — [like] a slip in grades — if it is not at home when you sit down and examine with your mate or your husband and once you rule out the home front, that’s when you rule it out and look at the school front,” she said. “That mouth is just as much of a weapon as if you knocked someone down.”