Bullying can start in elementary school

MARIETTA – Early intervention is key in countering bullying in schools, according to a panel discussion Wednesday night.

“Students really start recognizing their differences by the time they’re in the second grade, and bullying may begin as early as fourth grade. But if we can catch it early on the behavior can be fixed before it becomes a problem,” said Jona Hall, principal at Putnam Elementary School.

She was one of three panelists who talked about the bullying issue with about 30 church members at the First Presbyterian Church.

Other panelists included Sarah Miller, counselor at Marietta Middle School, and Mollie Hahn, elementary school counselor with the Marietta district.

Miller began the discussion with a definition of bullying.

“It’s continuous aggressive behavior that has to do with an imbalance of power where there’s clearly a victim and clearly a bully involved,” she said.

Hall said students often quarrel among themselves over various issues, but that doesn’t mean there’s bullying going on.

More information is available from The Bully Project at www.thebullyproject.com

“We often have to determine what is actually a bullying act and what is just a child being mean for some reason,” she said. “But incidents of bullying are not that frequent at Putnam Elementary as we try to practice prevention by ‘front-loading’ students with understanding of the good behavior we want to see rather than have to try to correct bad behavior on the other end.”

Hall said bullying is not a big issue throughout the local school system because teachers and counselors work diligently to foster good behavior from kindergarten on. Most bullies’ behaviors are modeled off of some experience they’ve had, she said.

“We probably see more bullying at the middle school level,” Miller said. “It starts around the seventh grade and can increase from there. We have to investigate every incident or it can grow out of control.”

Hahn said without proper intervention at an early stage of the behavior, the bullying problem is likely to increase in later years.

“At the elementary level there’s just a lack of understanding about how to be a friend,” she said. “We often hear kids say ‘I’m not going to be your friend’ after they’re upset about something. But that’s not a sign of bullying at that age.”

Miller said things change as students grow older.

“At the middle school we see that behavior escalated as students may use more intense, hurtful and heartfelt words as well as cyber bullying,” she said.

Cyber bullying involves the use of electronic social media like texting or posting hurtful messages on Facebook or Twitter.

“I saw that kind of behavior frequently as an assistant principal at Marietta Middle School,” Hall said, noting in the past one student might write something negative about another on a paper note and pass it to a couple of others before it went into the wastebasket.

“But now on Facebook or through texting that kind of messaging is much more intense,” she said. “Once you hit that ‘enter’ key it’s like pulling the trigger on a gun – it’s out there and you can’t take it back.”

All three panelists agreed that cyber bullying can be addressed effectively, not only by making students aware that such behavior has consequences, but also by educating their parents.

“You have to make parents aware that it’s going on,” Hall said. “It can grow out of control if it’s not monitored.”

Hahn said the advent of Twitter and texting has made it easier for students to spread rumors about someone very quickly. But she said that parents, who are paying the bills for their children’s cell phones and other devices, can obtain links to the youngsters’ Twitter accounts to monitor what’s going on.

“Children are less likely to do things if there’s a chance they’ll get caught,” Hahn said.

Hall said students at Putnam Elementary are being taught from kindergarten up about appropriate online behavior, which also helps reduce cyber bullying-type problems later on.

Hahn said counselors have a responsibility to not only help the victims of bullying, but also to help the bullies themselves, who often behave the way they do because of low self-esteem.

“We try to get them to see that they don’t have to be that way,” she said.

But Hall said that victims also need to be taught how not to become victims when facing a bully.

“We teach them to use ‘I’ statements-to tell the bully ‘I don’t like the way you’re talking to me. It makes me feel sad or bad or angry,'” Hall said.

Church member Joan Hampton said she’s learned a lot about the bullying issue from Wednesday’s discussion and a screening of the movie, “Bully,” the members watched last week in preparation for the discussion.

“I love the emphasis they place on prevention, and also on recognition of students when they’ve been kind or good to each other,” she said of Wednesday’s presentation.

Hampton said she would recommend the “Bully” movie to anyone, available through The Bully Project at www.thebullyproject.com, which is part of a national effort to educate people about the issue.

“The film was so heart-rending, and showed that bullying not only affects the victim, but it has an impact on entire families,” she said.