Monday, October 17, 2011

Efforts redoubled against school bullying in San Mateo County

By Neil Gonzales
Posted: 10/15/2011 09:52:49 PM PDT
Updated: 10/17/2011 09:54:37 AM PDT

A somber anniversary passed just a few days ago for Jack Kazanjian, 15, of Redwood City.

It's been a year since a close friend took his own life after the relentless taunting of others -- much of it over the Internet.

"He was gay, and he was getting bullied," Jack said. "I posted on Facebook for people to stop, but on the Internet no one cares."

In the year since his friend's death, however, local, state and federal efforts to battle bullying in its various forms have increased.

San Mateo County school districts, spurred by a recent grand jury report that pointed out a lack of policies specific to bullying, are working to strengthen their procedures. The governor has signed anti-bullying bills into law, and the federal government already launched several initiatives to address student-on-student harassment.

Local students are also doing their part, whether it's participating in a simple round-table discussion or planning a rally to encourage other youngsters to stand up to bullying.

In recognition of October as National Bullying Prevention Month, Jack, fellow students and school officials at Fusion Academy in San Mateo held a group discussion about bullying. They also watched a video about Jamey Rodemeyer, 14, of Buffalo, N.Y., who killed himself last month after suffering gay slurs online for more than a year -- a case that has caught national attention.

"A lot of kids don't care about other kids but themselves," Jack said.

Jamey's plight echoed what happened to Jack's friend a year ago. "One of the kids kept making fun of him," Jack recalled. "The bully had his friends post comments on the Internet. They wrote, 'Everyone hates you' and 'Why don't you just die.'"

Online bullying can be particularly devastating, said Dan Morgan, Fusion's chief administrator. "It's there forever. It's easy to say something anonymously, and it can really, really hurt."

Brian Buntz, executive director of the youth-development nonprofit Dream Volunteers in Redwood City, agreed with that assessment. "What the Internet has done, especially social websites, is it has given young people tools to engage in bullying-type activities behind closed doors," Buntz said.

As part of the nonprofit's anti-bullying campaign, which is being launched this year, teen members are organizing a free concert and rally to raise awareness of the severity of the problem. The event, which targets middle school students and their parents, is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City.

"We're trying to get students to reach out to each other when they see bullying," Buntz said. "We also want to let them know where they can get help from adults -- after-school program directors, school counselors, school officials and police -- so they don't feel isolated and powerless."

According to the latest figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, 28 percent of students ages 12 to 18 reported that they endured bullying such as punching, name-calling and the posting of insulting messages online on a repeated basis during the 2008-09 academic year.

About 6 percent of students in that age group reported being cyberbullied in 2008-09, according to the center.

A higher percentage of students who were cyberbullied skipped school or got into campus fights than those who were not cyberbullied, the center said.

According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, more than 160,000 children in the country miss school every day just to avoid being bullied.

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown has approved a pair of anti-bullying laws. Assembly Bill 9 requires districts to have a uniform process for addressing bullying complaints. It also mandates that school personnel intervene, so long as it's safe to do so, if they see bullying. Assembly Bill 1156 requires that all school employees go through bullying-prevention training. It also allows bullying victims to change schools in their district.

On the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education and its partners have engaged in summits the past two years to work out a national strategy against bullying. Last year, the department sent letters to schools, colleges and universities reminding them that they could be in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws if they fail to adequately address ethnic, sexual, gender or disability-based harassment.

In response to the San Mateo County grand jury report, representatives from local districts convened last month to explore ways to beef up student-conduct policies to address bullying more effectively. One of the issues has been that a school might have a policy that uses different language in regard to bullying compared to the district office, county schools Superintendent Anne Campbell said.

So the districts' representatives looked at making "everything consistent in terms of understanding what bullying is and the consequences of it," Campbell said.

The Sequoia Union High School District is putting together a committee to craft a new anti-bullying policy, Superintendent James Lianides said. Sequoia Union has pursued a number of measures over the years to combat bullying, such as having older students mentor their younger counterparts and developing a conflict-mediation program.

"We've had a lot done in the last several years to really create climates across the district that provide safe environments for all students," Lianides said.

Contact Neil Gonzales at 650-348-4338.

28 percent of students ages 12 to 18 reported that they endured bullying.

6 percent of students in that age group reported being cyberbullied.

A higher percentage of students who were cyberbullied skipped school or got into campus fights than those who were not cyberbullied.

More than 160,000 children in the U.S. miss school every day just to avoid being the victim of bullying.

Sources: National Center for Education Statistics and National Bullying Prevention Center

If you want to do more

What: Free concert, rally sponsored by Dream Volunteers for middle school students and their parents to raise awareness about bullying
When: Begins 3:30 p.m., Oct. 24
Where: Fox Theatre, Redwood City


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