When kids hurt kids: it’s painful, but is it bullying?
By Julie Filby
October is Bullying Prevention Awareness Month. This is the first in a two-part series on bullying.
When Kara Thompson was in fourth grade, she fell victim to the so-called “mean girls.” Growing up in small-town South Dakota, three classmates had Kara in their sights and wouldn’t let up.
“Oh, look at the little rich girl,” they’d taunt when she wore new clothes to school. When she dressed down in attempts to pass under their radar, she was mocked with comments like,
“Aw poor girl, in rags.”
She couldn’t win. She found no support in her friends. She felt alone.
The harassment continued mercilessly to the point Kara didn’t want to go to school anymore. In the long run, she ended up making a fresh start at a new school some 40 miles away.
Today a professor at a college ranked one of the best in the country, the College of William and Mary, some wounds from that grade-school bullying remain.
“Kara’s very successful now, but it’s something she’s never forgotten,” explained her father Richard Thompson. “It affected her confidence level; made her wary of relationships. … (Bullying) can leave lasting scars.”
Thompson, superintendent of the largest private school system in Colorado—the Archdiocese of Denver Catholic Schools—is able to draw on that personal experience when it comes to handling bullying matters in the schools.
“It can be very complicated,” he said Oct. 23 from his office at the John Paul II Center in Denver.
As many as half of children are bullied at some time during their school years, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Since it’s now known that bullying—physical, verbal or relational—can cause real suffering in children, at times interfering with their social and emotional development, or mental wellbeing, the way schools respond has changed in hopes of improving the situation.
“Schools didn’t interact as much in the past,” Thompson said. “There was more of a ‘kids will be kids’ mentality. Today schools intervene in an appropriate manner.”
Though some think bullying doesn’t goes on in Catholic schools, according to Thompson, it does.
“We have normal kids that are affected by the society around them,” he said. “It’s how we handle it that’s different.”
Specifically: the spiritual component.
“We’re able to context (our response) in Christ, the saints and the Holy Spirit,” he said. “It’s more than just ‘being nice’ to each other; we go a step deeper to the spiritual dimension of the children.”
It’s a respect life issue in Catholic schools.
“We strive to create a sense of community, respect and love,” he continued, “an environment that respects the human person at all levels.”
In this day and age, there are many influences at play.
“There’s really an in-your-face lack of civility,” Thompson said, offering examples such as disrespectful and immoral television sitcoms and reality shows, name-calling politicians, pressure to dominate in sports and other competitions, a misguided sense of role models, and unsupervised access to the Internet.
“Social media exacerbates the problem,” he said, referring to sites such as Facebook and Twitter. “When it comes to cyber-bullying, we deal with those situations the same as if they happened in school.”
In 2010, the Office of Catholic Schools revised the bullying policy and renamed it “Inappropriate Student-To-Student Interaction.”
“The term ‘bullying’ was thrown around loosely,” Thompson said. “If it hurts somebody, it matters, but we needed to differentiate.”
The policy breaks down interactions in increasing levels of seriousness: teasing, bullying and harassment.
Teasing is defined as “insults, banter, shoving, pushing that is upsetting to students.” While it needs to be addressed, teasing is also seen as students still learning how to interact with their peers.
“It can be hurtful,” he said. “But it’s normal.”
Bullying is more overt, more aggressive: “a deliberate hostile activity intended to harm, induce fear through the threat of further aggression, and create terror.” It demonstrates an imbalance of power.
Harassment is “any verbal, physical or visual conduct … interfering with an individual’s academic performance, or of creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational environment.”
While each of the 38 archdiocesan schools develops their own policy, each is required to use those definitions verbatim.
“Not every incident that happens is bullying,” Thompson said. “That doesn’t mean (certain interactions) are dismissed, but they’re dealt with differently.”
Dealings could include a conference, expulsion or legal action, in the most serious cases.
In addition to the reactive guidelines, each school has a proactive bullying prevention program in place, such as Caring Communities and Play Like a Champion; some in the context of religious education.
“You have to be intentional about dealing with it,” Thompson said. “You have to keep it in front of the kids all the time.”
Catholic programs, such as Endow, on Catholic feminism, and theology of the body, on human sexuality, can impact the school culture as well, according to Mary Cohen, associate superintendent and former principal at St. Mary School in Littleton.
“One of the gifts of the Catholic school is children come to us as children,” she said. “We’re able to give them proper guidance in why certain behaviors are not acceptable, because they violate the dignity of the human person.
“When everything is based on that philosophy, it changes the lesson,” she said.
Next week: A follow-up story will further address bullying prevention and offer resources for parents.