The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Defining—and Dealing With—Bullying 

Bullying may be in the spotlight, but policy makers struggle to address it

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Starting in the third grade, Herman visits classrooms for an hour every month to give kids a set of tools they can use to identify and effectively combat bully behavior.

For example: "If a kid calls you a pickleface, you can say, 'Hey, thanks for noticing. Am I a sweet pickle or a sour pickle?" Herman said. She also acknowledges taunts have changed drastically since her school days.

Much of the work she does with third-graders focuses on providing a clear understanding of what bullying is, especially what distinguishes it from teasing.

Herman teaches that bullying is one-sided, on purpose, hurtful and repeated. She also distinguishes four different kinds of bullying: verbal (insults and threats), physical (attacks and intimidation), emotional, relational or social (isolation, gossip and "mean girls"), and cyberbullying.

"I can always identify the bullies in a class when I talk about social bullying," Herman said. "They're the ones the other kids eye nervously."

The day Boise Weekly visited Charla Moran's third-grade class, students' hands shot up when Herman asked them a variety of questions about bullying. They quickly identified the different kinds of bullying Herman has classified and eagerly shared examples gleaned from the playground.

One of them delicately cited the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi.

"Bystanders are victims, too," another said of playground brawls. "They're only cheering so they don't get hurt, too."

The kids were also very clear on the difference between reporting bullying and tattling, and that tattling was frowned upon and could potentially be harassment.

Herman specifically targets third-graders with these lessons because the majority of bullying happens in fourth to eighth grades. In the fourth grade, Herman introduces concepts of conflict resolution, and in the fifth grade, there is a special course on cyberbullying.

After reviewing and discussing the material, Herman showed a short Bullyblockers video from education publisher Pacific Northwest Publishing demonstrating problem-solving strategies with stick figures.

More than just offering strategies to help those being bullied to identify and cope with harassment, Herman said she's also working to educate bullies so that they are aware there will be repercussions.

"This way, they know we're on to them," said Herman.

Though she had to create the bulk of it from scratch, Herman based Bullyproofing off the work of Norwegian researcher Dr. Dan Olweus, who at the Norwegian Ministry of Education's request, developed one of the world's first anti-bullying program after a rash of adolescent suicides in 1983.

Olweus' data found that more than 20 percent of students were victims of bullying and 19 percent reported having been a bully "sometimes" or more often. But an analysis of 2,500 students enrolled in the Olweus program over two-and-a-half years showed reductions of 50 percent or more in reports of bullying, as well as drops in fighting, theft and vandalism, and large improvements in overall school climate.

Herman found similar results in data she kept for grant applications. And, anecdotally, she said the staff from the middle schools Andrus feeds into tell her they can always tell Andrus students because they're so well-educated about bullying.

But that's not to say students at the other 48 schools in the Meridian School District are entirely without. Parts of Herman's curriculum are standardized throughout the district. Students learn about what makes one a bully or a bystander, what makes them a target and what kids should do differently if they find themselves in those roles. What sets her program apart is the volume. Most students only get three half-hour lessons a year in the first, third, fifth, seventh and eighth grades, compared to Herman's monthly classroom visits.

"We have more and more requirements in reading, math, social studies. You have to then find time in the academic day to teach those lessons," said Jeanne Buschine, coordinator of counseling services for the Meridian School District.

Buschine said they try to find ways to wrap such lessons into other curricula, like using books read in English classes to broach the subject, but that it becomes a complex issue of timing.

"It's hard to squeeze in social, emotional lessons in an academically challenging, rigorous curriculum," she said.

But Buschine said what Herman is doing differently is taking that basic platform and going beyond just what's required.

"I have no requirement in my job to do this," said Herman. "But it's so effective, and it cuts down on our discipline referrals. Instead of putting out a fire while it's happening, we're going in and doing prevention."

Buschine said expanding the district's program to be more like Herman's would be awesome.

"But realistically, I don't know that with budget and staffing cuts, we'll be able to increase anything next year," she said. "I don't even know that we'll have the money for new curriculum."

"We don't have a lot of bullying here," said Herman. "It's a peaceful little place. Prevention is everything. And there's so many ways to do it. It's easy."

In fact, Herman said her biggest problem isn't the kids; it's the adults who repeat the time-failed advice of their parents to either ignore the bully or fight back.

"In today's world, when you ignore a bully, they may go home and get a gun or a knife," said Herman. As for fighting back: "What are you going to do when your kid is suspended?" said Herman.

That's why Herman, like McCarter, stresses that staff and adults have to be trained as well. If they're not all on the same page, if rules or principles are enforced in one classroom but not another, then there is no chance of accomplishing anything.

That's why she said the Legislature's failed approach--criminalizing bullying--wouldn't have been effective without a program like hers to work in conjunction.

"How can it?" Herman asks. "It's like saying speeding is an offense but not setting a speed limit."

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