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Story - Education

May 25, 2010 5:19 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Battling the schoolyard and online bullies

May 25, 2010 5:19 PM

Sam’s mother hit her breaking point the day she dropped off her 11-year-old son at his middle school in the western part of Southampton Town, and he lamented, “It’s hard to have a good day when everyone at school hates you.”

The sixth-grader’s despondency struck a chord.

To his mother—who requested anonymity for both her and her son, fearing that speaking publicly about the situation would only fuel more instances of Sam being bullied—it was one of the saddest episodes in Sam’s battle against a cadre of schoolyard bullies who started teasing him and picking playground fights with him last Christmas.

Small for his age, Sam was taunted by jeers that he was anorexic, and though he never returned home with black eyes, he describes instances of being “trampled” by larger boys. The worst, he revealed in a recent interview, was the exclusion he suffered when the bullies formed various “clubs” that he was not welcome to join.

“I can’t talk to them,” Sam said, explaining the sense of isolation he feels from his classmates, whose conversations often revolve around Facebook and video games rated for “teen” and “mature” audiences that he is not privy to. Sam’s parents won’t let him start a Facebook profile until he’s 13, the minimum age Facebook sets for users, even though Sam says all of his classmates are logged on.

When Sam’s grades took a nosedive and his teachers called a conference with his mother, “they had no idea,” she explained. “They had an ‘aha!’ look, as if I had filled in a piece of the puzzle.”

When Sam and his mother broached the topic with the school administration, they were told the situation would be taken seriously, the offending students would be interviewed, and if the problem were found to continue, the bullies would be suspended. But the insults continued flying, and the bullies got off scot-free, according to the family. “They just told [the administrator] that they didn’t do anything,” Sam noted.

“It was like beating a dead horse,” his mother said, calling the interviews “futile.”

A Rock And A Hard Place

Bullying can be extraordinarily difficult to handle. Dr. Jackie Humans, a public speaker from Northport whose topics include bullying and cyber bullying, explained a story once shared with her about a disabled boy who had been picked up by a classmate and rammed against a wall at a Long Island school. When nothing was done after a teacher reported the situation to the administration, the administrator reasoned it was the teacher’s word against the accused student. The student wasn’t speaking, and his parents were lawyers. Thus, case closed.

“Schools are between a rock and a hard place,” Dr. Humans said. “We say we have zero tolerance for bullies, but every parent says, ‘Not my kid,’ and the parent of the bully will defend them. It’s a horrible situation.”

East End school administrators agree that bullying can be a sticky situation—but, speaking on the record, they tout their school’s policies as effective.

Sag Harbor Superintendent Dr. John Gratto listed three main reasons why bullying can be an administrative challenge: it’s often “discreet,” children suffer in silence without telling anyone, and the technological explosion of texting and e-mailing has only given bullies more forums to inflict pain on others. But, he says, “nine times out of 10” bullying does stop after intervention by school officials and parents, and that instances of bullies’ parents siding with their offending children are rare.

With the school year winding down, the number of boys picking on Sam has dwindled, and the teasing has become less frequent. Some of his strategies are among those considered by Dr. Humans to be powerful. Foremost, she said, is the need to deprive a bully of the upset reaction that he or she craves. “They need an emotional reaction from their target, the way fire needs oxygen,” explained the author of the recently published “15 Ways to Zap a Bully,” a children’s guide.

Dr. Humans became an expert on bullying after her daughter, Nikki Lee, who has Asperger syndrome, grew up parrying snide remarks. When Dr. Humans started browsing library bookshelves for resources on bullying, she found the selection mostly instructed children simply that the situation is not their fault and to confide in an adult.

“In my opinion, children get a sense of empowerment from solving their own problems,” she said. “Most kids have a deer-in-the-headlights response to bullying, but that’s triple cherries in the slot machine for the bully.

“If you can forewarn a kid what to expect, that they’ll call you fat, or gay, or that your mother wears army boots, whatever,” she added, “instead of taking it to heart, they’ll realize it’s a game.”

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What's with the "Dr." courtesy titles? Are they medical doctors or PhDs? If the latter, then their fields of expertise would be relevant, right?
By bailey (52), East Hampton on Jun 3, 10 11:06 AM
What a load of crap. Stand up for yourself and you will earn the respect of friends and enemies alike. Don't be afraid of bullies, make them afraid of you. Even if you lose the fight, you will gain respect. It may take more than one attempt, but persevere and the bully will fold. Especially if you hit him in the solar plexus.
By Noah Way (450), Southampton on Jun 4, 10 9:50 PM