Alleged School Bullying Victim, Mom Speak Out On Georgia’s New Bullying Law

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‘It Was Just Pretty Much Assault Every Day’: Alleged School Bullying Victim, Mom Speak Out On Georgia’s New Bullying Law.

Back to school season is in full swing and like so many other families around the country 13-year-old Alicyn and her mother Annise Mabry are busy keeping up with the demands of the school year.

However, instead of preparing to go to a local school, Ali takes classes at home. Instead of a classroom, she logs onto her laptop for online lessons. Instead of a teacher, her mom is her instructor.

“It’s a lot better, it’s a lot more fun and it really brings out a lot of the things I found enjoyable in school,” says Ali, decked out in a hot pink Hello Kitty T-shirt, rows of colorful plastic bracelets dangle from both of her arms.

She used to attend a public middle school near their Conyers, Ga. home just outside of Atlanta, but this year for 8th grade, she’s relying on the online Georgia Cyber Academy for her curriculum.

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13-year-old Alicyn selects her course schedule for a new school year with the Georgia Cyber Academy, bully free.

Ali and her mother say excessive bullying from classmates on and off school grounds brought on Ali’s transition out of a traditional school.

“They were just really mean, the pushing, the shoving, hitting, slapping. Basically it was just pretty much assault every day,” she says. “With girls it was hair, my face, the way I dressed, the way I looked. The way I talked. Things that you really can’t help. I felt like that was my only reason for coming to school; just to be pushed around.”

Ali says as much as she loved learning, it was a struggle every day.

“I was a straight-A student, and I still was able to maintain straight A’s and still maintain on honor roll, but I was really considering dropping out.”

In addition to traditional bullying, texting and social media such as Facebook and Twitter, she claims, made her predicament worse.

“One could be in the classroom, two was Facebook, three was the bus and then four was the text messages,” she says, a dismayed look on her face. “And then it would go back to one. And it would get worse every time that you got back to one.”

Ali claims that she reported the incidents to her teachers and counselors and they did nothing. Her mom says ultimately it was too much for her daughter to take.

“Another suspension came when another student had been taunting her and hit her repeatedly with a book in the presence of a teacher and the teacher did nothing to intervene,” says Mabry of her daughter. “And Ali got mad, and she got tired of being hit, and she hit back. And that resulted into a two-day suspension.”

Ali says no adults intervened.

“They never did anything, never said anything; they never reported it, never even stepped in,” she says. “I was in and out of the counselors office frequently; more frequently than most students. I even had appointments there weekly.”

The incidents took their toll. At times she felt the bathroom was her only refuge.

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After repeated episodes of bullying, both in and out of school, the Mabry's posted a sign on their front lawn: "This property under 24-hour surveillance."

“I went to the bathroom to eat lunch,” she says, a tinge of sadness in her voice. “Actually what I would do is I would take my binder to lunch. I would go to the bathroom. I would leave my binder in the bathroom intentionally. And then I would come back and do my work and everything else because I couldn’t sit at the lunch table because kids were so mean.”

She says the longer the bullying went on, the more she spiraled down.

“My self-esteem just dropped,” she says. “When I tried to get it up, it was like trying to throw paper in the air and expecting to catch it.”

Her mother says she knew something had to be done and she realized it was up to her to take action.

“When she got suspended the third time is when I finally said, ‘something has to change,’” says Mabry. “‘I can’t keep sending her through this.’ Ali was biting the skin off of her hands [because she was so stressed out].”

Decatur (Ga.) High School Counselor Ken Jackson says extreme examples like Ali describes are increasingly more common. He sees about two serious cases a year.

“Bullying by definition means that there's some kind of harm, it’s repeated and there is a power difference,” he says. “Somebody has social, physical power over someone else.”

He says students who don’t fit neatly into a student body’s established social structure are often targeted.

“I do think some of it is that [the bullies] feel that they have social permission to pick on some types of students,” he says. “Some kinds of student [behaviors] are seen as less acceptable. Likewise, students in these groups may feel the social stigma and not feel they can go anywhere for help.”

The number of bullying incidents that became more public in the past year was an impetus for changing the bullying law, he says. Still Jackson calls the new Georgia law a step in the right direction, but cautions that it is not a cure-all for the bullying issue.

“But we also know that simply establishing a law does not fully change a climate, a behavior in a person or a school,” says Jackson. “Setting a climate in which the expectation of what is good and appropriate behavior, what is inappropriate behavior responses to bullying is a necessary thing.”

Mabry feels not enough was done to protect her daughter. The former teacher resigned from her job as a dean at Devry University for medical reasons, then opted to home school her daughter for the past year. The Georgia Cyber Academy, she says, has been a great fit.

“And the beautiful thing about the cyber academy is that it falls under the charter school umbrella and it’s free for all Georgia students,” she says. “They ship your books. If your student does not have a computer they give you the computer. All of the supplies you need to go to school, they UPS to you. The only thing is it requires someone to be present for five hours a day to monitor the learning.”

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Schools Try to Stop Bullying Before It Starts


Mt Bethel Elementary Dess No Bully Zone
Prevention and intervention counselor Jeff Dess points to anti-bullying posters displayed at Mt. Bethel Elementary School.

Public school students and parents are seeing some changes this year in the way their schools handle bullying. That’s because of a law passed by the state Legislature last year that schools are now starting to put into practice.

In a four-part series, the Southern Education Desk and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange are examining the new law and its impact on students, families and schools.

The state education department’s Garry McGiboney has been helping Georgia’s schools stop bullies since the early 1990s. But since the state Legislature passed the revamped bullying law last year, McGiboney says he’s seen a change.

“Our view has come from responding to questions and responding to requests for training, which has been unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my career as an educator,” McGiboney says. “There’s more attention inGeorgiaon bullying prevention right now than anything I’ve ever heard about.”

McGiboney has kept busy, training teachers, administrators -- even school bus drivers. Every adult who works in a school is now legally mandated to report bullying if he or she sees it. So educators want to make sure that they know how to spot the behavior -- and how they should respond when they do.

But McGiboney says there’s been a shift in the types of questions educators ask since the law was passed. At first, he got mainly operational questions about how to put the law into practice.

“But that has changed from questions about the law more to questions and an interest in bullying prevention and bullying intervention,” he says.

The reasoning is that it’s better to stop mean teasing and harassment before it builds enough to reach the legal standard for bullying.

So how do you stop bullying? How do you even recognize bullying? Three students at Mt.Bethel Elementary School in Marietta, just north of Atlanta, gave three different answers, each touching on elements of what researchers and educators accept as a formal definition of bullying.

– “A bully is probably like the meanest person. That’s what comes to my mind, like someone pushing someone.”

– “Like when they push you or shove you. Bullying is like, when something is unfair and one-sided, it happens when people are usually upset about something and they go after you and they take it all out on people.”

– “I’ve seen someone getting bullied, but I told a teacher.”

Jeff Dess’ job is to help schools make sure students like these know the best answer to those questions. Dess runs a prevention and intervention program in Cobb County that experts point to as a model for bullying prevention done right.

Dess has come to Mt. Bethel to work with the school’s “bullying committee.” It’s a group of teachers and administrators -- led by guidance counselor Kellie Oakes – charged with developing the school’s bullying prevention strategies.

School has just let out for the day, and as she and Dess wait for the teachers on the committee to assemble, Oakes explains that they have volunteered for the job. It’s not a huge commitment, she says, but it does require the staff to commit to something extra. She pages the main office to ask for them to make an announcement reminding staff about the meeting.

“Bully them to come!” Dess jokes.

When it convenes, the committee launches into a discussion of how best to integrate their prevention strategies into the classroom. Dess throws out a number of options:

– Should they repeat last year’s contest, which challenged each classroom to create a poster illustrating positive behaviors?

– Should they keep last year’s winning poster and hold a different activity this year in which students in each grade illustrate character words like caring, kindness and empathy?

– Or, should they follow the lead of another school and have fifth graders produce videos demonstrating the difference between tattling on someone and telling an adult about behavior that could hurt someone?

They also go over a survey that the counselors plan to give to the school’s older students. Dess explains one change this year that will, for the first time, let the school track instances of bullying over time.

Dess reads the new question aloud: “I was bullied in the past 30 days in the following ways: physical -- pushing shoving tripping hitting; verbal -- hurtful teasing insults making threats; cyber -- computer or texts; left out or ignored on purpose. And their choices are not at all, 1-3, 4-5.”

“This will give you a direct indicator of whether bullying is going up or down and in which areas it’s going up or down,” Dess tells the committee.

Peggy Haag teaches second grade at Mt Bethel and is a volunteer on the bullying committee. She says that even before the law, prevention work has helped the students learn to check themselves against bullying.

“I think children are more aware of the fact that that’s called bullying and that ‘I better be careful of what I do and that there are consequences for it,’” Haag says.

The results of a survey that theMt.Bethel counselors gave to students last year seem to bear that out -- but also suggest challenges. Around 85 percent of last year’s third through fifth graders said they would report bullying if they saw it. But if they saw someone being ganged up on by a group, the number of students who said they’d report it dropped to 68 percent.

Oakes says there was some nervousness at the school when they began to implement the full documentation required by the new law. It seemed overwhelming.

“It was such a grey area, really,” Oakes says. “We were like, ‘what about this?’ Teachers are going to feel like they have to write down if somebody looked at somebody. We were afraid that people were going to be feeling like they had to fill them out all the time.”

But Oakes says the paperwork has been manageable. She also says the law has helped change the way she communicates with parents, for the better.

“Before, maybe we would have just talked to a kid about an incident, kind of kept it in mind, but we weren’t maybe contacting the parent every time,” Oakes says. “But now -- I had a couple yesterday, where I just wrote it up -- ‘you know, it’s not bullying yet but we have to keep an eye on it.’ And both parents were right on top of it. It prepares them too, so they’re not so surprised.”

But the process of spreading bullying prevention efforts around a school does take a lot of work. In an ideal world, Dess says that he would take a full day and a half to train teachers and staff on bullying prevention strategies.

But in the real world, Dess says he’s lucky if he can get 45 minutes of teachers’ time in a faculty meeting.

And then there’s the question of funding. Federal funding that has supported Dess’ program ran out this month, and Dess and the program’s other administrators aren’t sure if they’ll be able to find the money to fill the gap.

Read more about the work Jeff Dess and other prevention and intervention counselors are doing to stop bullying here.

Jaheem Herrera’s Suicide Inspired Lawmakers To Beef Up Georgia’s School Bullying Policies


Jaheem Herrera. Photo credit: smokenmirrors_photo/photobucketJaheem Herrera’s Suicide Inspired Lawmakers To Beef Up Georgia’s School Bullying Policies, His Mother Says She’s Still Fighting For Justice

It’s been two years since Masika Bermudez lost her only son Jaheem Herrera, but the heart-wrenching emotions are still raw as if he died yesterday.

“It was like a bad dream, you know,” says the metro Atlanta mother, tears welling in her eyes. “You have your son there after school and in a blink of an eye, he’s not there anymore. The last thing I can remember about my son is with a big smile on his face when I was looking through his report card and then to see him lifeless afterwards. That’s the last image I have of my son every time I close my eyes.”

Jaheem was just 11-years-old when she found him hanged in a closet in their Decatur, Ga., apartment in April of 2009. She says her dark-haired cherub-faced son known for his friendly smile, was bullied to death.

“He got bullied in school, he’d been taunted, he’d been teased, he’d been called gay,” she says. “And that really bothered him, because he used to tell me about it, that he’s not gay. Why [did] they keep calling him gay? It caused a lot of symptoms [for him]. He’d been going through anxiety, depression and he didn’t want to eat. He couldn’t even sleep, you know. And it hurt him very bad.”

Bermudez claims she went to Jaheem’s school, Stone Mountain’s Dunaire Elementary, in an effort to get help for her son seven or eight times in the same school year that he died, but she insists the problem persisted.

DeKalb County Schools hired retired Fulton County Judge Thelma Moore to conduct an independent review of Bermudez’s claims. After a 30-day investigation, the judge concluded that Jaheem was teased at school, but not bullied, and that Bermudez never reported any problems to administrators or teachers. Judge Moore’s review included interviews with more than 50 witnesses from Jaheem’s school.

Bermudez says she has the sign-in sheets from the school office to prove her claims. She also alleges that before returning Jaheem’s personal items to her, administrators cut out the pages from his notebook journal where he detailed the bullying he experienced at school.

“Their response was there was no bullying, you know, and my response to that is that there was bullying,” she says. “My son used to tell me what used to happen to him. There was bullying. There was bullying and he got choked in the restroom. And I’m not, I can’t let that go.”

DeKalb County School System representatives would not comment on the findings that Jaheem was not bullied. Its Department of Student Relations Director Quentin Fretwell, instead, would only comment about its system-wide bullying awareness campaign now in its second year.

“We’re bringing awareness to the entire community; not only to kids, not only to training kids, training administrators and others; but also bringing awareness to the parents, bringing awareness to community leaders, staff members, bring awareness to society in general and saying we all have responsibility,” contends Fretwell.

Jaheem Herrera. Photo credit: gapride2008/photobucketBermudez says in May 2009 her former attorney Gerald Griggs filed a neglect complaint against the school system. She claims that she has yet to receive a direct response. She and her colleagues also asked DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James to look into her claims, but she has not gotten a response, she says. Bermudez and her friend Annette Davis Jackson are working on a formal response to the school system’s review, which they say is seriously flawed.

“[DeKalb County Schools] have what is considered disciplinary referrals,” notes Jackson. “The disciplinary referrals [forms that teachers and administrators complete], they don’t even have a check mark that says bullying. So you can just document it as a classroom disturbance and this is very key.”

Jackson says when Jaheem was suspended from school, it was written up as a “classroom disturbance.”

“It said classroom disturbance, only to find out that this was actually a [another student] choking [Jaheem] in the bathroom,” says Jackson. “So, his infraction was classroom disturbance. And no one chronicled it, or documented it as bullying. So you‘ve really got to look at DeKalb County and say, ‘you didn’t really train your teachers and you administrators to properly document bullying.’”

In her report, Judge Moore indicates that in the December 2008 incident that Jackson describes, Jaheem was suspended for fighting with a boy in the school’s bathroom. “Jaheem came in swinging,” Judge Moore has said. She claims the alleged fight was reported to school officials a month after it happened and that it was one of several scuffles in which Jaheem was involved. Bermudez says Jaheem’s best friend told her about what happened – not the school.

“I went to the school the following day and asked the principal about the choking incident, and her response was, ‘oh that incident,’” says Bermudez, “I said ‘what do you mean that incident, my son could've died.’ And she said he was getting suspended for it. I asked, ‘why, when he was the one who got choked,’ she said it was because he swung and fought back.”

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Schools Implement New Bully Law


No Bullying Allowed! Photo courtesy of Working Word via Flickr

In a four-part series, the Southern Education Desk and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange are examining the new law and its impact on students, families and schools.

After 11-year-old Jaheem Harrera committed suicide in 2009, some of state Rep. Mike Jacob’s constituents in DeKalb County, Ga., in suburban Atlanta, asked him to take a look at the state’s existing rules against bullying in schools.

He did, and as he told an audience at a fundraiser for the group Georgia Equality last year, he didn’t like what he found.

“It was so inadequate, in fact, that the Jaheem Harrera situation was not even covered by the existing law,” Jacobs said. “It only applied to grades six through 12.”

So Jacobs proposed making the state’s anti-bullying measures apply to elementary schools too. The law that the Legislature passed also expands the definition of bullying beyond physical harassment only. It requires schools to notify parents of both bully and the victim whenever bullying happens. And schools must now remove students caught bullying three times and send them to an alternative school.

“And if they don’t do that, they will lose state funding,” Jacobs said. “So there are significant consequences to local school districts not enforcing the new anti-bullying law.”

Forty-seven states have now passed legislation to combat bullying, and the watchdog site Bully Police now ranks Georgia among states with the most muscle behind their policies.

The state education department developed a new model policy against bullying at the end of last year. School districts were given until the start of this school year to update their own policies and put the law into action.

Linda Horne, who’s responsible for helping schools implement the law in Houston County, in south central Georgia, says the district convened a committee of school staff members to facilitate the process. Then they fanned out to their schools, helping other teachers and administrators understand what the law means.

“We talked about bullying being severe, persistent, [and] pervasive,” Horne says. “So that it creates an intimidating or threatening educational environment; so that it causes another person either physical harm or bodily harm or that the person perceives that it could cause that.”

Knowing the exact definition of bullying is important, since the new law requires every adult employed by a school system to report bullying if they see it.

“The enforcement of bullying policy can lead to some really thorny problems,” says Bill Nigut of the Georgia Anti-Defamation League.

Nigut lobbied for the passage of the revamped bullying law for two years. He says the legislation fixes some big problems with the old law. But when you drill down to the school level, he says, even strong bullying laws raise difficult questions.

“A great example -- the new law does have protections for online bullying. But one of the questions that is being grappled with in school systems around the country is to what extent do schools have responsibility for enforcing bullying from one personal computer to another?” Nigut says. “That’s unsettled law at this point.”

Some districts are also beginning to use more sophisticated definitions of bullying than the law requires, Nigut says. His organization, for example, is urging districts to classify different types of bullying based on the motivation of the bully and who the targets are -- like singling out bullying based on religious belief or sexual orientation.

More broadly, Linda Horne of Houston County says the country is in the midst of a cultural shift away from a time when bullying behavior was seen as just another part of growing up.

“For many years we looked at bullying as being what many people would say -- well they’re just being boys being boys or girls being girls,” Horne says. “And I think that over the years, we’ve begun to see, you know we need to take a look at this.”

And that’s led to a new level of scrutiny. The federal Department of Education hosted a conference at the end of September on stopping bullying in conjunction with seven other federal agencies and a slew of national non-profits. The Anti-Defamation League’s Bill Nigut says the attention signals that stopping bullying is an idea whose time has come.

“When you have any number of federal agencies now deeply involved in fighting school bullying, it tells us clearly that this is now deadly serious business,” Nigut says.

But increased attention raises more unanswered questions. Elizabeth Jaffe of Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School says one involves what happens when students’ free speech rights collide with other students’ right not to be bullied.

Jaffe notes that existing case law allows schools to limit students’ speech to protect the safe environment of the school.

“However, with the litigiousness of our society, I think we’re going to see more and more lawsuits about incidents that occur,” Jaffe says. “For me the question goes back to prevention.”

So the question becomes not just how to respond to and punish bullying when it happens, but how to prevent it from happening at all.

It may take some time to tell whether the new rules in Georgia are actually cutting down on bullying -- in general, reports of bullying spike as schools begin to track it and as students and parents become more aware.

But lawmakers, advocates and schools are hoping that in time, the changes will lead to more peaceful, respectful schools -- that in turn promote more learning.

Photo credit: Working Word/Flickr

The Truth About Bullying

I’ve been a journalist a lot longer than I’d care to admit (a lot of people mistake me for younger), so admittedly after a while the articles I write sometimes begin to blur together. However, one thing’s for sure: the name Jaheem Herrera will forever remain etched in my mind. I remember clearly the first news reports of this metro Atlanta boy’s suicide in 2009. The images of his mother, heartbroken and sobbing splashed across my television screen aren’t easy to erase.

I was honored to be among the first people Masika Bermudez agreed to speak to after her son’s untimely death. While on assignment for People Magazine, I managed to interview her by phone days before her big The Oprah Winfrey Show interview, alongside the mother of Carl Hoover another alleged bullying victim. Once she returned to Atlanta, Bermudez graciously agreed to talk to me in person. Her grief loomed heavy and thick like a bloated storm cloud, as she walked me through her modest Decatur, Ga., apartment. Jaheem’s humanity became all too real as I stood in front of the bedroom closet where he tragically ended his own life – a short nine years in total. Flipping through his school journal book, I couldn’t help but notice that the pencil drawings scribbled throughout told the story of a boy steeped in pain.

No matter where you stand on Jaheem’s death – whether you think he was bullied to death like his mother asserts or that he took his own life for other
reasons as a DeKalb County Schools review suggests – the fact of the matter is that his story helped shine a spotlight on brutal bullying practices.

It also touched a lot of lives and inspired Georgia lawmakers two years ago to pass a law beefing up bullying policies in all the state’s schools. For that, we should all be grateful to this cherub-faced little boy who loved to practice flips on a patch of grass in front his home, tease his three sisters and imitate Michael Jackson’s dance moves before erupting into a fit of giggles.

I hope you, too, will find this multi-part series informative, engaging and enlightening. Coordinating this bullying series, a partnership between Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE), has given me the opportunity to reconnect with Bermudez and her family and to educate myself even more about the lingering impact that bullying imposes on our community and society overall. For that too, I am truly grateful.

It is important to note that by definition, bullying always involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time. There must be an imbalance of power or strength; it’s not two equals experiencing conflict. Bullying is not just physical; it’s verbal and emotional as well. And the advent of social media, chat rooms and texting has expanded its reach. The effects of bullying can reverberate throughout a victim’s entire life. Bullying does not stop with childhood. The victim/aggressor patterns can last a lifetime. Bullies are everywhere – from home to the workplace.

Parents, educators and the community overall must also know that we all can prevent bullying before it ever happens, by promoting an environment of acceptance for other people’s differences at home and in the classroom. This means taking inventory of personal biases and taking steps not to pass them consciously and unconsciously on to children. This also means communicating clearly to them that no form of bullying will be tolerated. They should know in advance that the consequences would be stiff if it were ever discovered that he or she had been engaging in it, even as a passive bystander. Don’t make excuses for bullies -- make them accountable for their actions.

Young People Use Slurs Online, See Them As Jokes

Young people are more likely to use slurs online, and most see discriminatory language as joking, according to an Associated Press-MTV poll of 14- to 24-year-olds conducted nationwide in 2011.

Seventy-one percent say they are more likely to use slurs online or in text messages than in person.

Also, most young people don’t worry about whether the words they post on their cellphones and laptops could reach a wider audience or get them in trouble, according to the ABC Action News article.

"People have that false sense of security that they can say whatever they want online," Lori Pletka, 22, told the reporters.

Although most people see slurs as joking — 57 percent say people are "trying to be funny" — a significant number of youth are getting upset, especially when they are in the group being targeted.

Cyberbullying continues to be a problem. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed say they see people being mean to others on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. And 51 percent encounter discriminatory words or images on those sites.

Those who are the most targeted are overweight people, Muslims and gays.

Young people say its OK to use mean language within their own circle of friends because, “I know we don’t mean it.” Yet four out of 10 young people have given little or no thought to how easily their text and online messages could be spread.

Going further, attempts to cut down on offensive language don’t seem to be working.

Despite a public service announcement ad campaign to stamp out anti-gay slang, two-thirds of young people still see “that’s so gay” being used. Similarly, an effort to steer kids away from using the word retard hasn’t worked. Half of those surveyed don’t find the word even moderately bothersome.


Image: moreno10sblog

Facebook, Marketing and the Clash Over Kids

Millions of young kids are already on Facebook, even though the site can’t legally allow anyone under 13 to create a profile. And if the previous statement were a status update, Facebook would “like” it.

The popular social networking wants all youngsters to be allowed; this way they can begin sharing early. Consider this: When anyone shares on the site, Facebook benefits by allowing marketers to use the data and it makes money. Giving all kids the right to sign up would insure the site’s continued dominance.

Weeks after Consumer Reports announced in June 2011 that 7.5 million kids age 12 and younger are on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg made it clear that he wanted to challenge the 1998 act, known as Coppa, which prevents websites from collecting personal data about kids under 13 without permission from their parents.

As a New York Times article discusses, it’s not known how joining Facebook at a young age impacts kids. Some say it's essentially harmless and fun, while others argue it exposes children to bullying and harassment.

Zuckerberg and others in Silicon Valley, believe that nonstop sharing, at every age, is inevitable, so we might as well allow everyone to do it.

One concern is the default privacy settings Facebook uses, especially considering research shows that most people never change their settings. Many people of all ages are sharing things without realizing it. With young people, the situation only worsens.

Facebook is taking action against the dangers of sharing, although none of these addresses privacy concerns. The following are three examples mentioned in the article:

  1. the site uses a technology to find and remove child pornography;
  2. it's a partner in law enforcement's Amber alert system for missing children;
  3. and, in September, the social network started testing a special e-mail address with a small group of principals and guidance counselors that gives schools an inside track for urgent reports on bullying and fighting.

In contrast, the Federal Trade Commission wants to require websites to get parents' permission before they can track the online movements of kids under 13 for marketing purposes. And a bill recently introduced in Congress, called Do Not Track Kids, would bar websites outright from using kids’ data to target ads to them until they are 17.

Protect the Sheep from the Wolves, How Zero Tolerance Misses the Mark

Do you remember Joe Clark? The principal portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the movie "Lean on Me?"  One could say he was the personification of zero tolerance when it came to principals. During his first year he kicked out more than 300 students in one day for being tardy or absent, and as he put it, for being "disruptive." He would remove hundreds more over the next five years.

Quite frankly, I enjoyed the movie. It's Morgan Freeman after all.

How about the tense showdowns between Mr. Clark and the drug dealing gangbanger? Who wants those dangerous youth in the same school with our daughters and sons? I don't!

My adrenalin was pumping in that scene when Mr. Clark paraded all the gang banging, drug dealing and bullying students onto the stage and told them to get out. I clapped along with everyone else.

I love Hollywood. It overemphasizes parts of the truth to capture our attention, puts us on the edge of our seats, and helps us escape. The moment we step out of the theatre we return to reality. A reality in which there is no evidence that Mr. Clark improved the lives of students he kept on campus -- much less the ones he kicked out.

Three hundred students in one day? Really? Not even the police on our school campus' can find more than 25 students out of 1,200 who are the dangerous drug dealing and gang-banging type described by the movie. And Clayton County, Ga., where I live and work, is not known for its high socio-economics and low-crime rates. Nope -- we have the highest foreclosure rate, the most free school lunches, the highest unemployment rate and lowest medium income in the Atlanta metropolitan area.

When our school board acted crazy and caused our accreditation to be revoked, we were a laughing stock in the United States. People left Clayton County in droves.

Also, let’s not forget our last Sheriff, Victor Hill, and his antics that gave us national press coverage. Fugitives came to Clayton County because he wasn't executing warrants -- he wanted to be the chief of police instead. All that is gone now, but the damage is done. Clayton County is on a slow upswing for sure with our new leadership -- but the damage is not easy to repair.

Officer Robert Gardner, a veteran school police officer with Clayton County describes his student population using a lamb, sheep, and wolf allegory. Most of the student population is made up of sheep. They make noise, get into some trouble, but nothing major. They just make you mad from time to time.

The lambs are the nerds -- always quiet and under the radar. They make up about 25 percent, at most, of the population.

The wolves -- they are the dangerous students who come to school to wreak havoc and prey on others. They also make up no more than 2 percent of the population.

Gardner says his job is to focus on the wolves -- the predators -- the 2 percent. He says he can't do it if he is arresting sheep.

Zero tolerance policies do not discriminate. Everybody is arrested or suspended and this leads to bad outcomes beginning with an increase in drop-out rates and ultimately leading to an increase in community crime. Sometimes discrimination is a good thing.

"I can’t protect the sheep from the wolves if I spend more time arresting the sheep," says Gardner. "Its part of my job to discriminate against the wolves for the protection of the sheep and lambs."

The equal application of zero tolerance results in racial inequalities -- or maybe the racial inequalities is proof that zero tolerance is not equally applied. Regardless, the results are the same -- its zero intelligence.

Last week, I was invited by Daniel Losen to present before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Daniel published a report titled, "Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice," which surveyed the research showing the ineffectiveness of zero tolerance policies and provided recommendations to reverse the negative effects. One of my fellow presenters was Jonathan Brice of the Baltimore City School System. I met with Jonathan, juvenile judges, and law enforcement in Baltimore a couple years ago to discuss the push-out of students using arrests, suspensions, and expulsions.

Today, Baltimore City Schools, under the leadership of their superintendent, Andres Alonzo, and staff like Jonathan, have made drastic changes in how they respond to minor school offenses and infractions. For example, there are some offenses that do not result in suspension and others that will not get suspension for more than five days. Anything over five days must be approved by the superintendent.

Administrators and teachers engage students using the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports Model (PBIS). Instead of the Joe Clark approach, Baltimore now employs mediation, counseling, parent conferences and other resources to engage parents and students.

Alonzo says, "Kids come as is, and its our job to engage them."

Joe Clark took the easy road. He got rid of the wolves and a lot of sheep. Those lost sheep likely were devoured by the streets. They no longer had the protection of an educational environment -- the second best protective buffer against delinquency.

Mr. Alonzo took the more difficult road. He believes in zero tolerance when correctly applied. He won't hesitate to remove a wolf, but he works hard to engage the other 98% and keep them in school. Consequently, the drop-out rates have been cut in half and graduation rates have increased by 20%.

This business of juvenile justice is not exact, but it's not arbitrary either. We know alot more today about what works to reduce delinquency using social science methodologies.

It's analogous to surgery in a way. You don't remove the liver when it's the appendix that's about to burst. Similarly, you don't kill the sheep when the wolf is on the prey.

See more of Teske's work.

The Real Consequences of Bullying

Jonh-Lash-4-cropped-2Bullying is increasingly seen as a problem in the United States, and some research has started to prove that its consequences are real.

Most adults can probably remember being bullied in school, and there is a tendency to think of it as a rite of passage or simply as a part of life that kids have to get used to. After all, we got through it OK, perhaps with the advice of “standing up” to the bully, or simply by enduring it until it went away.

Consider a few statistics from James Burns, an educational speaker and trainer who runs Proactive Behavioral – Management:

  • Sixty percent of middle school students say they have been bullied, while 16 percent of staff believe that students are bullied.
  • Thirty percent of students who reported they had been bullied said they had at times brought weapons to school.
  • A bully is six times more likely to be incarcerated by the age of 24.
  • A bully is five times more likely to have a serious criminal record when he or she grows up.
  • Two thirds of students who are bullied become bullies.
  • Twenty percent of all children say they have been bullied.
  • Twenty five percent of students say that teachers intervened in bullying incidents while 71 percent of teachers say they intervened.
  • The average child has watched 8,000 televised murders and 100,000 acts of violence before finishing elementary school.
  • In schools where there are bullying programs bullying is reduced by 50 percent.
  • Bullying was a factor in two thirds of the 37 school shootings reviewed by the U.S. Secret Service.

One organization in Georgia, the Lowndes County Drug Action Council (LODAC), has launched an anti-bullying pilot program at Lowndes Middle School in Valdosta, Ga. LODAC started in 1988 to specifically address the growing problem of drug abuse by school-aged kids who were most at risk and who lacked insurance to pay for treatment.

Since its inception its mission has grown substantially though. LODAC now serves the larger community with a variety of programs that combat truancy, juvenile delinquency, domestic violence, jobs skills, teen pregnancy and STDs. It works in close conjunction with the juvenile court, local schools, and community members.

The anti-bullying program was designed and implemented by Susan Johnson, a former university professor and the first director of LODAC from 1988 to 1992. Together with the current director, David Troy, she researched several systems for bullying prevention and selected what she thought would work in the local schools.

Mr. Troy, a retired principal, believes that addressing the issue with younger kids would be easier than trying to help them when they were teens. It was his observation that kids who engaged in anti-social behavior at an early age were often the same ones who were suspended from school or even became involved with the juvenile justice system as teenagers. This was why they decided to target middle school aged kids.

Ms. Johnson met with all of the teachers and presented information on how to spot bullying behavior, and how to differentiate it from normal levels of conflict. A one time argument or fight does not constitute bullying. Instead teachers were taught to focus on behaviors that were repetitive and involved one kid exercising power over another. By raising teacher awareness she believes the problem can be dealt with at an earlier and less severe stage.

Students involved in these incidents will be referred to the school’s High Performance Leadership Team. This group, made up of teachers, administrators, and counselors will set the policy for the school and will resolve the disputes if possible. Kids, both the aggressors and the victims, can be referred to LODAC for therapy, anger management, self esteem building, or other interventions.

Besides the kids directly involved in bullying, plans are being made to include all of the students. One strategy is to have a weeklong focus on anti-bullying that includes assemblies, art projects, and discussions. A map of the school will also be available to kids, where they can anonymously indicate where bullying is happening. With this tool administrators can post more teachers in problem areas to head off trouble.

Part of the program is a survey that will collect data and feedback from faculty and students. In this way the efficacy of the plan will be proven, and improvements can be implemented the following year. With positive results LODAC hopes to share the training with more area schools in 2012.

A Minnesota School District’s Struggle over Bullying and Gay Rights

In a front page story, the New York Times explores the problem of bullying and a controversial school policy concerning sexual orientation in a school district in suburban Minneapolis.

The piece details a long struggle between advocates for homosexual students and Christian conservatives over how sexual orientation should be taught in schools. It also reports on a lawsuit filed against the Anoka-Hennepin School District claiming, in part, that district policy requiring teachers to be “neutral” on the question of sexual orientation has helped to bring about a hostile environment for gay and lesbian students and therefore increasing the number of incidents of bullying.

The suit was brought on behalf of the students by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. News of the suit comes after reports that the Department of Justice is in the midst of a civil rights investigation of on-going harassment of gay and lesbian students in the the district of some 38,000.

The issue has been further heightened in the district because eight students have committed suicide in the past two years.  Both sides are in disagreement, however, over whether bullying and the sexual identity of the students had anything to do with their deaths.

The Times story also points out that this area north of Minneapolis is solidly in Michele Bachmann’s congressional district. Mrs. Bachmann, a Republican candidate for president, has not made any statements about the suicides or the district’s policy over sexual orientation. She has in the past, however, expressed skepticism over the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs, according to the paper.