The notion many adults have of bullying among middle school students may be of what they remember during their younger years – of bigger kids physically picking on smaller kids on the playground.
The times have changed.
"In my day, it was physical bullying," Vermillion Middle School Principal Pat Anderson told the Vermillion School Board Oct. 25, "and now it's verbal. And it's 24/7. It's on Facebook, it's texting, it's non-stop, and that's our biggest challenge. You can marshal others to gang up on somebody with a text – it's that simple, and that is really something that I think a lot of administrators and a lot of schools across the country are dealing with right now.
"It is becoming rampant nationwide, and it leads us to ask what exactly are our responsibilities as a school, when texting occurs on a Saturday afternoon, and we have to think of protecting the child on a Monday. That's still an area that's being explored in school law. I'm not a great fan of texting, because I have to deal with a lot of those things when they come in, but that's the nature of what we're dealing with right now."
Staff at the middle school introduced a program to students throughout last month that hopefully will increase awareness of the problem, and teach young people that the best solutions rest with them.
"The month of October is National Bullying Awareness Month, and so we used that month to bring everybody to the same awareness of what bullying is," Betsy Hughes, middle school guidance counselor, said. "We talked about traditional bullying, and we also talked about relational aggression, which is more social bullying with girls, and using relationships to be very mean and exclusive."
The theme of the month-long program was "Empowered Bystander: Taking Action for Dignity through Kindness."
"The very first day of October, students were asked to complete a survey about the social climate in Vermillion Middle School," Hughes said.
According to the survey, 45 percent of the students believe the Vermillion Middle School's climate is "welcoming to all kinds of people." Fifty-five percent believe students are "q uick to put people into categories."
Of the surveyed students, 56 percent responded that it is easy to make friends in school, 33 percent said is kind of hard to make friends, and 8 percent said forming friendships at the middle school is very difficult.
"We also focused on awareness, and did some activities, such as keeping a log of the number of times students heard a 'mean' name or how many times they heard someone be put down," Hughes said.
The second week of activities focused on inclusiveness. "We did 'mix it up lunches' which is just a way of arranging the kids so that they sit with different people than they normally sit with," she said. "Lunch aides also sat down at the tables and helped the students start a conversation among themselves."
During the third week of October, "we got to the heart of the program and talked about what it is to be a bystander, and what it is that you can do to change situations that you see happening," Hughes said.
The month concluded with several activities, including skits performed by members of the middle school's sixth grade and eighth grade Home Base students, and presentations and skits on bullying by students from Vermillion High School, followed by small group-based activities.
"I think that the original impact is good," she said. "Everyone's awareness is up, and I think our effectiveness will depend on how well we can keep this in front of them (students), and be consistent about what we're doing.
"Also, I think it's helped me realize," Hughes said, "what we're asking these kids to do. And it seems simple, but one of the terms a high schooler used was 'Well, she did this in a skit. She stood up to one of her friends and said she was being mean, and went over to be nice to the kid that was the target (of the bullying)."
When this student was asked if performing such a kind act would be realistic, Hughes said, the student replied, "No, that would be committing social suicide."
"I think that trying to be real with the kids and ask them 'if you can't do that, what can we do?' is helping us to just get to what's real after doing all of this work. We're going to get to what will really work," she said. "And some of it might be focusing on trying to get a student who is targeted out of a bad situation by having a classmate tell him or her that a teacher wants to see them, or encouraging students to let the targets of bullying know that they thought others had been mean to him or her, and asking to have lunch together."
Encouraging such indirect action among students at the middle school, Hughes said, "might still be effective and help our school climate feel friendly."
Anderson said the 'mix it up lunches' seem offer some inroads toward combating bullying in the local middle school.
"Kids always sit with 'their group' at the lunch tables," he said, "and when we mix them up – by their names alphabetically, or by their birthdays, or just random things, they (the students) will sit their quietly looking at each other for awhile, but within the first 10 minutes they are social animals.
"You'll find kids talking with one another that you would never have expected," Anderson said, "and they find out that they have some things in common. If you give the students the opportunity to do these kinds of things, most of the time they'll rise to the occasion, which is kind of nice to see."
Hughes said the efforts to combat bullying by empowering bystanders will continue, with hopes of markedly improving the school climate by the end of the 2010-2011 school year.