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The bully effect: Spotlight shines brighter than ever

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012 12:17 p.m. CDT

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Justin Williams remembers the fear that followed him every day on his way home from school. Walking from the bus stop as a middle-school student, he didn’t know what awaited him each day.

Perhaps a classmate would run up to him and throw snowballs in his face. Maybe he’d get stuck in a “shoving circle,” surrounded and treated like a pinball. Most likely, he would be mocked and called names. Years later, Williams, of South Elgin, said he is doing well, but he feels the bullying might have held him back.

Michael Stuewe said he can’t remember why the bullying started when he was a student in Geneva. He knew it happened every day, and he was picked on “mercilessly.” Now studying to become a teacher, Stuewe was inspired to follow that professional route so he could help those who are suffering.

And then there is Kyle Clausen, a 2012 Kaneland High School graduate. Clausen said he was struggling as a seventh-grader at Kaneland’s middle school. He wasn’t turning in his projects. Why bother? He knew someone would destroy them before he got to class. So he discarded the work himself. He wouldn’t give a bully the satisfaction.

“That was how I got caught,” said Clausen, explaining that a custodian found the work in the trash and gave it to the proper teacher. Clausen knew his cover was blown. It would be impossible to hide that he was being bullied. Now, Clausen has worked past his bullying issues and helps youths who face those challenges.

The national spotlight is shining on such stories, and the push to identify and deal with the concept of bullying has become intense. A documentary released earlier this year, “Bully,” provided momentum for those involved with the cause, nationally and locally. In Kaneland School District 302, for example, a group called Knights Against Bullying confronted the school board this week, demanding answers and action on the topic. There are similar bullying stories throughout the Tri-Cities and beyond.

It’s not a faraway problem. In preparing for this four-day series on bullying, the Kane County Chronicle heard from people who have experienced bullying in every public school district the newspaper covers – Batavia, Geneva, Kaneland and St. Charles. In Batavia, there were reports this year of a hazing incident involving players in the high school baseball program. In St. Charles, a former bus driver described witnessing situations taking place on a regular basis.

Beginning today, the Kane County Chronicle will examine bullying. Those who have been bullied will share their stories. Administrators will explain their policies and present their solutions. Experts will examine the issue and present their findings. You’ll hear from parents, bus drivers, rock stars, advice columnists, students and former students.

• • •

Most school district policies establish bullying as a repeated act or threat directed at a target that aims to cause physical or emotional harm. It can be something that creates a hostile environment, and it substantially disrupts the education process. What once was more likely dismissed as a part of growing up or just kids being kids now is taken seriously. At worst, there are suicides in which bullying is cited as the primary reason.

How schools address bullying is a source of confusion and frustration for many involved. Some parents and employees at school districts have been under the impression the Illinois State Board of Education establishes strict rules on bullying that must be followed. That’s not so. The state board only requires school districts have such policies.

Mary Ann Fergus, a spokeswoman with the state board, explained “the law does not prescribe what must be contained in the policy.” However, a lesson on Internet safety must be taught at least once a year beginning in third grade.

Also, some administrators say parents are under the impression all districts work under a zero-tolerance bullying policy.

District 302 Superintendent Jeff Schuler stressed that’s not true, and he added research shows “zero tolerance does not work for bullying.” Geneva High School Principal Tom Rogers agreed, saying a zero-tolerance policy can remove the ability to determine whether a situation was unintentional.

And then there is the issue of what to do with bullies. Those representing the youths who are bullied might push for punishment, but experts say that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. Some administrators speak of success stories about when a bully and the victim were brought into a room together to resolve their differences, but some parents say they want no part of that kind of solution. And there are teachers, administrators and parents who say they consider themselves fortunate to address the situation because some kids are so fearful of what might happen that they endure bullying for years without saying anything.

Those who are bullied also should know there are solutions that exist beyond the schools. If they aren’t satisfied with the response they receive from teachers, school counselors, principals, superintendents or school boards, they can file a police report. The state’s attorney’s office also can be involved, and repeat offenders who are accused in escalated incidents can end up in court to face serious charges.

But if the bullying isn’t reported, experts say they likely cannot help find a solution. All involved say it is vital that a school district maintain an environment in which such students are protected and such incidents are taken seriously.

• • •

Bullying can take many forms, and part of the issue is administrators might be reluctant to label a specific incident as bullying. Schuler, for instance, said there is a trend in which “we’re pulling a lot of different behaviors together and lumping them under one category – bullying.” Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon said he must view each incident on the actions involved, noting he is unable to charge a person specifically with bullying.

District 302 recently updated its student handbook to specifically address bullying. The middle-school handbook now identifies three levels of bullying. At Level I are such incidents as exclusion, gossip, physical contact (such as poking) and verbal comments. At Level II are such actions as physical aggression, cyberbullying with intent to incite group mentality and racist remarks or incidents in which the aggressor feels the target deserved the actions. At Level III are incidents such as multiple acts on a target or separate targets; the aggressor has an intention of serious harm to the target or an aggressor enjoys the status of being feared.

There is physical bullying, incidents of exclusion, cyberbullying, hazing and more. Remedies for Level I incidents at Kaneland Harter Middle School involve counseling with a social worker. For Level II incidents, parents might be called on to get involved. For Level III incidents, administrators are involved with thorough investigations, and outside authorities might be contacted.

When those involved are asked where bullying takes place, many answers are similar.

Those involved at all levels single out the bus, where students know a bus driver might be too busy to address issues. And while most buses are equipped with cameras, they acknowledge it won’t stop an incident from taking place. Other locations where bullying often takes place are bathrooms, locker rooms and the walk to and from school.

And while most say bullying has been taking place for years, the most significant game-changer is cyberbullying, which many say extend the school day indefinitely and magnify anything that happened at school.

• • •

Williams, Stuewe and Clausen had to fight through bullying for years.

Williams said his experience involved a ringleader and a group that just chipped away at his self-confidence on a regular basis.

He said there would be physical incidents, but ultimately it broke down to intimidation – from mild incidents to severe ones. Someone would slap the books out of his hands, for instance, and many others would witness it and do nothing. When that happens repeatedly, he said, it makes someone feel as if he is not important.

“It’s like none of them care,” he said. “It’s the whole feeling of, ‘What do I matter?’ ”

Stuewe said teachers helped him along the way, and he hopes to make a difference as an educator. He said he hopes to focus on prevention.

Clausen, too, eventually got past bullying, but he describes an extremely rocky road.

He speaks matter-of-factly about attempting suicide, and he said he would have succeeded if his father had not called to interrupt. He said he quit a sports team over a bullying incident. He now talks to other students about what he endured, and he said he listens to what they have to say about their situations. He said dozens of middle-school students sought him out after a talk he gave at Harter Middle School.

He wants victims of bullying to know they are never alone, and that many others have had to endure the same difficulties or more.

“All you have to do is speak up and show them that you can help,” he said. “What has shocked me is that teens and young adults might have more trouble getting through one day in their lives than a grown adult would, and that’s with an adult dealing with family, work, bills and mortgage. The only reason being this – teens always have to fit in. Adults, on the other hand, do not.”

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