WASHINGTON — It can begin with a single, seemingly harmless act: a taunt at recess, a snub in the lunch room or a juicy piece of gossip posted to Facebook or Twitter.
But each act, multiplied over time, can equate to some devastating consequences, including shattered self-esteem, depression, fear and, in the worst cases, suicide.
Bullying has dominated the headlines in recent months with the highest-profile cases splashed across front pages, bringing national attention to an issue once relegated to school halls and locker rooms. Several teens reportedly took their own lives rather than face ongoing torment from their persecutors.
What once was an issue that most chalked up to an inevitable rite of passage is now being re-examined for its true impact, from Defense Department schools all the way up to the highest echelons of the nation’s leadership.
Last year, the departments of Education and Health and Human Services joined with four other departments, including the Defense Department, to create a federal task force on bullying. And in August, the task force held its first National Bullying Summit to bring light to the issue and to find a path to stop it for good.
“It’s gotten the attention of the country just how invasive any type of bullying is to the well-being of a victim,” said Barbara Thompson, director of the Pentagon’s office of family policy, children and youth.
Although they’re extremely adaptable, military children may be particularly susceptible to bullying in public schools, where they tend to be the “new kid on the block,” Thompson said, especially when moving to an area where their classmates have been living since kindergarten.
According to national statistics, about 32 percent of students ages 12 to 18 report being bullied in school. They most commonly said they were made fun of, were the subject of rumors or were pushed shoved, tripped or spit on. However, only about a third of the victims notified a teacher or another adult about it.
“It’s important for all parents to be vigilant and to ask their children how things are going in school,” Thompson said. “Create an open forum where a child feels comfortable to say, ‘I’m scared’ or ‘I don’t like the way I’m being treated.’ ”
Bullying happens to some extent in all schools, but that doesn’t make it acceptable, said Patricia Cassiday, director of pupil personnel services for the Department of Defense Education Activity. DoDEA oversees all of the department’s schools, both overseas and stateside.
“For those of us who work with kids in schools, we don’t want children to be humiliated and embarrassed and have to ‘put up with it,’ ” she said. “It’s against the law, and it’s not OK.”
The education activity has built bullying prevention lessons into the curriculum for students in kindergarten up to 12th grade. Instead of focusing on punishment and repercussions from the top down, the curriculum underscores the importance of preventing the problem from the ground up.
“We stress the importance of students supporting each other and saying, ‘Not in our school,’ ” Cassiday said.
Schools also push the bystander role to the forefront rather than putting the onus solely on the victim to get help. Students are encouraged to intervene, whether it’s to come to the defense of a victim in a nonviolent way or to distract a bully, who may also be a friend, from picking on others.
A student at Wiesbaden High School in Germany recently produced a short video that echoes this message. He urges students to stand “shoulder to shoulder,” and to take action if they see a student who is being isolated or seems disheartened. The video is now posted on DoDEA’s website.
Despite the best-intended prevention efforts, bullying will still occur, Cassiday noted. If it does, DoDEA’s school officials encourage a step-by-step process, starting with urging the victim to speak up, but in a way that won’t exacerbate the situation.
“Be assertive,” Cassiday advised. “Right away, be clear you want them to stop. Say, ‘I don’t like it when you …’ then get out of the situation.”
If it continues, victims should let the bully know they are going to ask for help. Students are taught this isn’t a case of “tattling,” but of self-preservation, she said.
The next step is to encourage the victim to sit down with the bully and a counselor to discuss the issue, Cassiday said. Or, if the victim isn’t comfortable being there, the counselor will meet with the bully alone to call for an end to the destructive behavior. By doing so, “we’re keeping the bully from having all of the power,” she said.
If the bullying happens a third time, disciplinary action will be taken by the school, Cassiday said.
“Now there’s a whole history of behavior,” she said. “We try to make this a learning experience for both parties. Not just, ‘The bully is a bad kid,’ but ‘The bully made a bad choice.’ ”
All bets are off, however, when physical violence is involved, Cassiday said. In those cases, immediate disciplinary action will be taken.
Along the way, students are encouraged to talk about the incidents to a parent or trusted adult. In turn, the parent should immediately let the teacher or school administration know what’s going on if they’re not already aware. What parents shouldn’t do, Cassiday said, is tell their children what they might have been told in their own youth: to hit back.
“If you hit back, then both parties are going to be disciplined,” Cassiday explained. “It’s tough for schools to know who is to blame if both are involved.”
Parents also can choose to go to the parents of the bully, but not on the attack. Cassiday advises they make it a learning situation, and use the approach of, “I’m not sure you’re aware of this, but .…” Above all, she added, it’s just as important for parents to speak up as it is for their children.
“To remain silent, you’re condoning the behavior,” she said. “Your child doesn’t have to ever put up with bullying.”
Complicating the matter, bullying no longer is relegated to cafeterias and locker rooms. Bullies now can take their taunts worldwide via the Internet. The stories are rampant:
bullies posting slander to Facebook and Twitter or circulating a compromising photo through text messages. In a survey on WiredSafety.org, nearly half of the participants reported they’d been “cyberbullied” before, and more than 50 percent had a friend who had been bullied online.
Cyberbullying can have an impact that extends far beyond the school’s walls, Cassiday noted. To prevent online bullying, Defense Department schools are using a variety of computer training tools to emphasize the importance of online safety and responsibility to students, she added.
Outside of school, parents should monitor computer use and let children know they’re doing so, she advised. However, there’s a fine line between protecting children’s online privacy and a parental responsibility to protect them against a possibly unsafe environment, Thompson noted.
“Children really do need to have parental and adult involvement regarding how they receive information and post it,” she said.
The Defense Department is working with children and youth services managers to highlight online dangers and to teach them how to respond if a child approaches them with a concern, she added.
Additionally, the Defense Department’s Military OneSource site at http://www.militaryonesource.com offers free online resources and printed materials that are aimed at helping parents and children deal with bullying, whether the traditional or digital kind. The information also is directed at helping bullies change their behavior. Bullies, studies indicate, often were bullied themselves.
Thompson said she recently learned about a military child who went to a bullying prevention workshop. He realized there that he’d become mean to others because he was angry about his father’s deployments. “We need to work to break the bullying cycle,” she said.
The Defense Department will continue its efforts to shed light on the pervasive problem, not just for military children, but for all children, Thompson said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)