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Clayton Schools poised for anti-bullying offensive

Photo by Curt Yeomans
Eighth-graders at Forest Park Middle School act out a skit, depicting how students can bully a person by making them feel alienated, during an anti-bullying assembly at the school, on Dec. 10.

Photo by Curt Yeomans Eighth-graders at Forest Park Middle School act out a skit, depicting how students can bully a person by making them feel alienated, during an anti-bullying assembly at the school, on Dec. 10.

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Ezekiel Calzada, a Forest Park Middle School sixth-grader, said he has never been the victim of bullying, but he has seen classmates make fun of, and try to intimidate other classmates.

In recent years, bullying in schools has garnered national attention after high-profile cases of it reportedly led to youths committing suicide, following relentless taunting by their peers. One such case last year, just next door to Clayton County, in the DeKalb County School System, was the suicide death of a fifth-grader, who reportedly was harassed by bullies.

But, as Calzada pointed out, students who see bullying happen to classmates, do not always know how to handle it. He said that was the case in the past when he has observed bullying. "It made me feel bad, because I couldn't do anything about it. I just went home and told my mom about it," he said.

How is bullying done?

Earlier this year, the Georgia General Assembly passed a law, which toughened the state's anti-bullying laws, and defined bullying. Under state law, acts of bullying include: willful attempts or threats to inflict injury on another person; a display of force that caused another person to fear bodily harm; written, verbal or physical acts designed to intimidate, or harass someone, and is so severe or pervasive, that it can create an intimidating educational environment.

Victims of bullying tend to be children with some mild -- but visible -- form of disability, such as a person who wears glasses, or someone who speaks with a lisp, said Mandy Condit, the coordinator of psychological services for Clayton County Public Schools.

"Research will tell us that bullies usually don't bother children with significant disabilities [such as youths in wheelchairs, or developmental disabilities]," Condit said. There are four ways a person can be bullied by another person, according to Vickie Mangram, the head of the health and physical education department at Forest Park Middle School, who oversees anti-bullying efforts at the middle school. They are: physical bullying, "cyber bullying," intimidation, and social alienation.

During a recent anti-bullying assembly at her school, Mangram told students that up to 77 percent of school students are bullied at least once in school, according to nationwide research estimates.

"Bullying is happening at a younger and younger age," Mangram said. "It is not just something that happens in high school anymore. It usually starts in the elementary and middle schools. More and more bullying actions are happening in classrooms now. That is why we wanted to share this information with the students."

Mangram and Condit said cyber bullying, in which one person taunts and harasses, another person via text messages, social networking web sites, and instant messengers, is growing rapidly.

There are several online phrases parents need to be aware of, because they could be signs their child is being bullied, said Condit. The web site, netlingo.com, Condit said, has multiple lists of Internet acronyms that parents should know. Examples, according to a list provided by Condit, are: "182" (which means "I hate you"), "P911" and "CD9" (which are ways to say parents are around), and "zerg" (which means "to gang up on someone").

"The difficult problem with tracking cases of cyber bullying is that it doesn't happen in a school environment. It happens online, so that is why parents need to know what their children are doing when they are online," the school coordinated added.

What is being done to handle bullying?

Condit said Clayton County Public Schools began an offensive against bullying at the beginning of 2010, shortly after cases provoking suicides began to show up in the nation's headlines.

In January, she said, the district conducted a three-day training session, on bullying, for school guidance counselors. In May, the district began offering training for teachers, which focused on ways educators could develop anti-bullying lesson plans. At the same time, the district offered an anti-bullying workshop for parents.

The school system participated in national anti-bullying week events in November, in which several schools had law enforcement officials and school system officials, speak to students about the dangers of bullying.

One school, Kemp Primary School, won one of four first-place prizes in a nationwide National Bullying Awareness Week Multimedia Contest, sponsored by FTC Hosting Services. The video featured the school's guidance counselor, Annette McCraw, and students, stopping an incident of bullying, and then lecturing the bully.

"The district has really taken proactive, and preventative steps to reduce instances of bullying," Condit said. "It happens, even if we don't always see it. We just need to make sure, as much as possible, that we stop it before it has a chance to begin."

She added that students can call an anonymous bullying hotline, 1-877-SAFE-STOP, if they are the victim of bullying.

Over the next six months, Clayton County Public Schools will be rolling out a widespread anti-bullying initiative, which will include tackling the issue on multiple fronts, Condit said.

In January 2011, the district will unveil an anti-bullying web site, which will be a part of the school system's main web site, according to Condit. "It will be a one-stop shop parents can go to for resources on how to deal with bullying," she said.

Condit said bullying does exist in the local school system, but there is presently no exact figure on how pervasive it has become. That will soon change, she said, because her department is planning to conduct a survey of the district's more than 50,000 students, in the mid-to-late spring of 2011, to find out how many pupils report that they have been bullied by classmates.

Also, the state's new anti-bullying law mandates that school boards must adopt tougher bullying policies, by Aug. 1, 2011. According to the law, the policies must include methods to notify parents or guardians if school administrators have determined their children have engaged in acts of bullying.