In recent months, students across the U.S. have begun speaking out about the effects of bullying, from low self esteem, depression and self-destructive behaviors to the worst-case scenario: suicide.
In the wake of Canadian teen Amanda Todd’s suicide last month, the issue of bullying has taken the media by storm internationally. Even local bullying victims have let their stories surface and now the Floyd County School system is taking steps toward bullying and suicide prevention among students.
On Thursday, nearly 60 high school and middle school teachers throughout the Floyd County system participated in a day-long training session led by Michael Carpenter, a nationally certified bullying prevention trainer. The session, which took place in the board room, was organized by Lisa Drake, counselor at Midway Primary, and Bill Schoepski, former director of special education at Floyd County Schools.
The educators were selected by school principals as those with whom students can relate and were setting up safety teams among themselves. Drake said the training would help give them specific skills so that when they have a concern about suicide or they have a concern about bullying among students, they’ll have the skills to actually deal with it.
“We’re getting some direction from the state Department of Behavioral Health and what to do and we’re going to be following that guideline,” said Schoepski.
“It’s called QPR training and it’s identifying those characteristics in youth, suicidal characteristics, and knowing how to interact with that student, question that student, being able to determine how serious it is. And the referral process, getting them to some professional, whether that be an emergency room or whether that be counseling an individual,” he said.
Recognizing the signs
Drake said the training sessions will focus on two issues: suicide prevention and bullying prevention.
“What we understand is those correlate,” she said. “All kids who are bullied don’t commit suicide, but kids who are bullied are more likely to be depressed and kids who are depressed are more likely to commit suicide. So if we can be proactive about bullying, then we can have an impact on the suicide rate.”
Bullying victims can begin to exhibit signs of depression and thoughts of suicide. Sometimes, teachers can brush these signs off as typical teenage, hormonal behaviors. Other times, they miss them altogether.
Drake said kids will start acting strange, showing loss of interest in activities they once loved. Maybe they start staying at home more often. Their grades start slipping and they become withdrawn from their friends, their teachers, their parents and everyone.
The teaching staff learning those signs and ways to approach students who they believe may be at risk is significant, said Schoepski. It allows the faculty to be more confident when they approach the students.
“Hopefully, as we become more sophisticated (in these trainings), we can identify other problems that teens face,” he said, referencing alcohol and substance abuse.
In the future, he said he hoped they can extend the training to students by forming peer leadership groups at the schools.
Bullying or horseplay?
Drake said a major asset in preventing bullying is to understand the difference between bullying and horseplay.
During horseplay, she said, the children involved have equal amounts of power and are going back and forth. But with bullying, one student exerts power over another. Some teachers can mistake bullying for horseplay.
“When you think it’s just horseplay, you give kids the wrong strategies to deal with it,” said Drake. “Bullying is always power-based. A bully will always pick on someone who is smaller or quieter. You can be smaller by the virtue of your (physical) size, or you can be smaller in numbers.”
Those who are most often bullied, she said, are kids with disabilities such as autism or those in the special education program, as well as kids who are unique or less popular in school.
Usually, the “fight back” approach just adds fuel to the fire rather than putting it out.
“Dad says, ‘If that bully picks on you, you just hit him back and then he won’t pick on you anymore,’” Drake said. “The problem with that is, there is always going to be someone that is more powerful than you are and when you hit them back, that just opens the door for that bully to unleash on you. And it makes the situation so much worse.”
She and Schoepski have spoken about the issue at several civic group meetings as well as churches and other events. When they explain that this is not the ideal response, she said parents realize the “if they hit you, you hit them back” strategy isn’t a realistic or logical way to solve the bullying problem.
“In elementary school, we teach them to ignore and walk away first, because if you walk away first, you’re not that much fun to pick on,” she said. “The second (approach) is, turn at that person and say ‘Stop, you’re being a bully.’ Sometimes, it might be one of your friends that’s being the bully to you. If you stay stop, then (the bully) is able to self-reflect.”
Who’s got the power? Drake said the heart of bullying is all about a power struggle. Sometimes, kids don’t actually want to be bullies, but they fall into a pattern because power is addictive.
In years past, the focus has been trying to discipline the bully. But in order to eradicate the problem, you have to shift that balance of power.
“I can’t address this, going at the bully,” Drake said. “Because there’s not a consequence as strong as power is rewarding. I have to go and educate the kids who have been bullied and the bystanders. That’s where the power lies in our school. We have so many kids who see it happen and turn and walk away and get out of there.”
Drake said by having other students get up and stand by the bullied, the bully starts losing his or her power.
“Bullying can’t happen when the bully doesn’t have power, and we have to teach our kids that it is OK to go and stand with someone. As a matter of fact, it’s not just OK, it’s your responsibility. Kids have to learn how to have a position of power, especially when they’re vulnerable, and that it’s OK to go stand (by the bullied) and have that courage.”
She said it’s important to teach this strategy to the students who are already powerful in the school hierarchy: cheerleaders and football players.
Drake said those students need to use their power in positive ways.
“Let’s say a kid is being picked on and the captain of the cheerleading squad goes and stands by them. It goes away automatically,” she said. “The quarterback with his jersey on walks over to a kid who is being picked on and stands by them. We need to give them permission to do that, and not only do we give them permission to do that, but we challenge them and it’s their responsibility.”
At the end of the day, bullying prevention is up to the bystanders and the bullied to increase their numbers and gain the power.
“They have to have courage and stand for that child that’s being picked on, even if that child isn’t popular, or even if that child is a little different or even if that child is very poor,” Drake said. “And if one student will do it, it becomes contagious. It gives the others courage.”