“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”
This old mantra has become outdated as the issue of bullying has garnered increased awareness in recent years. In part because of school shootings that have been tied to bullying, the issue has been thrust to a nation-wide forefront, and students and adults acknowledge that bullying does exist in Jefferson County.
“I was surprised to learn it is everywhere,” said Pia Woods, account extension agent for Jefferson County 4-H Youth Development.
After talking with groups of children in schools across the county, Woods said, “It’s in all the schools, it just takes on a different persona depending on the environment.”
Local school officials said they are taking steps to decrease the incidence of school bullying in every district. One of the first steps, consistent with an Arkansas state mandate to address the issue, has been to clearly define conduct that constitutes bullying.
The Pine Bluff, Watson Chapel and White Hall school districts have all defined bullying, in part, as the intentional harassment, intimidation, humiliation, ridicule, defamation, or threat of incitement of violence presenting the danger or physical harm, interference with a student’s education or a hostile environment. This includes a written, verbal, or physical attack. Because of the increase of bullying on the Internet via social media, cyber-bullying is included.
According to Dollarway’s student handbook, the district adheres to the same definition, but goes further to say that “bullying is a series of recurring actions committed over a period of time directed toward one student or successive, separate actions directed against multiple students.”
In White Hall, cyber-bullying is defined as involving recurring or repeated harm.
Representatives from each district responding to inquiry acknowledged that bullying is an issue to varying degrees. Each district has adopted policies to protect students and provide a safe learning environment.
“It is an issue in our society so it is an issue in our school,” said White Hall school counselor Kim Stacey. Stacey, who has counseled elementary through high-school-aged students, said the use of social media via Facebook, texting, and Instagram is the most prevalent in White Hall.
“It starts out social but can end up being verbal and/or physical,” she said.
The district, touting a no-tolerance policy, starts preventive measures early, Stacey said.
“In the elementary schools there are many classroom guidance lessons that are used to help students understand the ways to recognize and handle bullying,” she said. “We teach skills and strategies at every grade to students on what to do if bullying is taking place.”
Stacey said the research-based lessons also aim to teach the students resilience.
“Children need to feel empowered that they can stand up to a bully that tries to use words to intimidate,” she said.
Regarding penalties for violating any part of the bullying policy, “administrators may vary the nature and severity of consequences according to the seriousness of the offense, grade level, age or handicapping condition of the perpetrator or victim; however, corporal punishment, suspension, and/or expulsion are possible consequences.” The junior high handbook does not make a distinction for cyber-bullying and omits corporal punishment.
“Our principals and teachers are doing all they can,” said Brenda Melton, an assistant superintendent for the Watson Chapel district assistant superintendent. “The teachers pay attention in the classroom to circumvent problems. They look to see if any kids are being targeted, students picking on them, even simple things like knocking their books off the desk, anything to create agitation.”
Melton said, because of a disparity in student/teacher ratio, bullying outside the classroom presents a bigger problem.
“Things can happen in so many different places, and even when a teacher is present, things can happen before a teacher reaches the student,” she said.
Regarding penalties for violating the bullying policy, Melton said some issues can be resolved through student conference, but if not students can receive anything from in-school suspension to expulsion for the year
“We handle issues as they arise,” she said. “I can’t think of anything that would be more effective than what we are doing … other than having more security officers at the schools.”
“I am very aware of this school’s reputation,” said Jerry Bell, principal at Jack Robey Junior High School. Bell maintains that since he became principal in 2012, the school has made strides to address the problem. He, along with school counselors Bernie Roberts and Rosie Lacy, said their proactive approach has made a difference.
“Expectation is laid out at the beginning of the school year,” Bell said. “The students are informed of the district’s policy and so are the parents.”
Roberts and Lacy, both of whom started as counselors at Robey under Bell’s administration, said they play an active role in implementing and reinforcing policy.
“The training is ongoing throughout the year,” Roberts said. “The kids feel more comfortable talking to us, but they can also now report anonymously.”
“There are measurable results,” said Bell. “The number of suspensions and fights have decreased, and the feeling in the building is more positive.”
Pine Bluff High School’s online handbook states that consequences for violating the bullying policy correspond with grade level and severity of the offense, starting with a parent conference for first offense. In a handbook received from Bell, penalties at all levels start with short-term suspension with a mandatory parent conference and progress up to long-term suspension for repeated offenses.
The Dollarway district handbook states that the penalty for violating the policy is at the discretion of administration and ranges from warning to expulsion. Dollarway school officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Whether or not the districts’ policies are effective in decreasing the incidence of bullying depends on who is asked—school officials or students.
Links to student handbooks:
White Hall: http://whitehallsd.org/documents.cfm
Pine Bluff: http://www.edline.net/pages/Pine_Bluff_School
Watson Chapel: Not available online