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Thursday, May 1, 2003 02:20 pm

Bully pulpit

Forum takes on school toughs

Bullying in schools is on the rise, according to Christopher Mulrine, a professor of education at Blackburn College in Carlinville. One in five students are bullied before they graduate from high school, and 84 percent of homosexual high school students report being harassed on a regular basis.

Mulrine spoke about bullying in schools last week at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. The event was sponsored by the Springfield chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

Bullying is not an unavoidable part of growing up, Mulrine said. "It is not just boys being boys." It is unprovoked abuse, repeated over time and intended to inflict distress. In most cases the bully is trying to gain status by overpowering or ridiculing a more vulnerable child. Other kids may egg on the bully because they're scared too, Mulrine said.

While most bullies are boys, at least 15 percent of bullying in schools is perpetrated by girls. "Girls use relational aggression--ridicule and teasing," Mulrine said. "It is a different type of bullying, but just as wicked." Psychological bullying is more difficult to detect, but possibly more damaging than physical intimidation.

Warning signs can indicate whether someone is the target of a bully. The student may be frightened to go to school, become anxious or depressed, come home hungry (as a result of having lunch money stolen), have unexplained bruises, or use drugs or alcohol.

Bullying can escalate into violent retaliation. One of the shooters at Columbine High School in Colorado was bullied since the first grade, according to Mulrine. A bullied student may also engage in self-abuse or attempt suicide. Support groups can help resolve conflicts, Mulrine said, and both bullies and victims need anger management.

Studies of how bullying affects gay students are especially alarming. A typical gay high school student hears an anti-gay message 25.5 times a day, Mulrine said. A Massachusetts study showed 46 percent of gay and lesbian students attempted suicide, compared to 8.8 percent of the entire student population, and gay students experienced depression at four to five times the rate of students in general.

One PFLAG mom described how her older daughter, who had come out as a lesbian in high school, eventually became a stronger, more assertive person and avoided being bullied, but two younger siblings were consequently taunted and bullied.

Zero tolerance policies have been effective when implemented in schools, Mulrine said. "But teachers often ignore, rationalize, or refuse to report a student out of fear of retaliation, fear of administration, or fear of his or her own safety," Mulrine explained.

Springfield's School District 186 has a zero tolerance policy toward bullying. "We don't tolerate it," said spokesperson Carol Votsmier. "If a person is a victim, we take a report." District 186's policy states that all reports of bullying will be taken seriously and that all reports will be thoroughly investigated. It also says that the administration will "intervene in bullying behaviors and strictly enforce rules against bullying."

Yet the audience at last week's meeting seemed to believe that school administrators don't take the problem seriously. One parent worried that since the Student Assistance Program--a counseling program--was eliminated from District 186 schools, there is no sympathetic person to go to with a harassment problem. SAP was dropped in junior high and high schools as part of last year's budget cuts. But that program is the first one principals in the district want reinstated if funds are restored, according to Votsmier.

The audience for Mulrine's talk was small, approximately 20 people. PFLAG gave school officials flyers for the event, but one PFLAG member wondered whether they were actually distributed to students. "We have found that if we give flyers to students, the flyers don't make it home, so we make them available at each school but we don't distribute them," Votsmier replied.

Mulrine is teaching a class on school violence this summer at the University of Illinois at Springfield. He can be reached at cmulr@blackburn.edu. Mulrine encouraged parents, students, and teachers to consult Web sites, such as http://stopviolence.com/hate/ lbgt.htm, http://www.successunlimited.co.uk/bullycide/index.htm, and http://www.bullystoppers.com/bullying_help_for_students.htm.

A "Youth Summit," sponsored by Unity for Our Community and the Springfield Department of Community Relations, will tackle the topics of violence and peer pressure this Thursday, May 1, at 7 p.m. in the City Council Chambers of the Springfield Municipal Building, Seventh and Monroe.

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