11 News Special Report: Roughed Up at Recess

By: Tim Ciesco Email
By: Tim Ciesco Email

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (KKCO) - A recent study by the Family and Work Institute shows that one-third of kids are bullied at least once a month -- and six out of ten teens say they see bullying at least once per day. Experts say it's a growing problem that affects every corner of the nation, including right here on the Western Slope.

"It made me feel horrible. I'd come home every day crying and I wouldn't want to go to school."

This is life as a student we'll call "Sarah" has known it for most of the school year. (11 News has agreed to conceal her identity because she attends the school where she has been bullied). A victim of bullying at her middle school in Montrose, she says she was tortured by a group of students daily, whether it was name calling, harassing texts and facebook posts, and even one incident where her personal property was damaged.

"I always thought it was my fault," said Sarah. "I was really sad and angry at myself."

The kids responsible were suspended for a day. But she says that just made things worse.

"I couldn't take it anymore," said Sarah. "I got sick of not being able to be at school. And it sucks because I love school so much."

Today, Sarah only attends her two favorite classes at the school and is home schooled the rest of the day.

"[The school] didn't do enough," said Sarah.

School Districts say that's a complaint they hear a lot and one they're working to hear less of. In an email sent to 11 News, Kirk Henwood, the Director of Instructional Services for Montrose & Olathe Schools said:

"On one hand, there is a concern schools do nothing about bullying, but, at the same time acknowledgment that school involvement makes things worse. That is the crux of this challenging issue.

Montrose and Olathe schools take bullying and harassment issues very seriously as it ultimately impacts student achievement and students’ social/emotional development. At our middle schools specifically, students learn how to recognize bullying behaviors, as well as life and communication skills designed to reduce or mitigate bullying activities. Additionally, we encourage students to talk to teachers and counselors, use the Safe2Tell network that allows for anonymous reporting, and as a district have implemented Positive Behavior Supports (PBS) in an effort to reduce discipline issues in our schools. In these tough economic times, we are working hard to keep our counselor/student ratios low, as well as continuing to collaborate with a myriad of community agencies to support our students and their families."

The issue is the same in school districts across the nation.

"All I can express from our school's point of view is we do everything that we feel we can practically do to protect children," said Kelly Reed, Principal of Redlands Middle School.

Reeds says his school and schools across the district take reported bullying incidents very seriously -- and anytime one is brought to his attention, the school immediately investigates and intervenes. Sometimes it results in setting up a meeting between the students to talk out their differences.

"We try to let them be as adult as possible as a learning experience," said Reed.

Other times, however, it results in disciplinary action.

"It could be all the way up to involving law enforcement," said Tim Leon, Safety Coordinator for School District 51. "Bullying is a form of harassment."

They say, however, it's not so much what to do -- but when to step in that's the tricky part. Many times students won't tell them they're being bullied.

"If we don't know about it, we can't act on it," said Leon.

"Probably for every time someone does come forward, there's three or four times that they don't," said Reed.

Experts say that's because kids don't want to be seen as tattletales or making the bullying worse.

"You keep it to yourself," said Sarah. "It's really hard. You don't know who to turn to because you feel like everybody is against you and nobody is going to see where you're coming from."

Sensitive to that fact, District 51 recently launched a student Crime Stoppers program in all middle and high schools.

"You can report incidents anonymously," said Leon. "We really encourage students to use that tool."

Another challenge schools admit they struggle with is clearly defining bullying and collecting data that shows what problems are happening where.

"We can't really address the issues unless we know what we're dealing with," said Diann Rice, a District 51 School Board Member.

Enter the School Equity Advisory Committee -- a new community group launched in February by the District 51 School Board.

"I'm hoping that part of what the committee does is better our policy and make it so it's doable and schools can follow through with it," said Susana Wittrock, Director of Equity for School District 51 and a committee head.

But it won't end there. The groups also hopes to educate and bring awareness to the public about bullying, which often times happens outside the school day.

"The schools have access to the kids six hours a day," said Cathy Haller, Prevention Coordinator for School District 51. "But those things weed out into the evening hours especially with the cyber possibilities."

"We will start by looking at our board policy," said Wittrock. "Is it where we need to be, is it good enough?"

An approach Sarah hopes will help break the cycle of bullying and make is so no other student has to feel afraid or sad at school.

"I want kids who are bullied to know that they're not alone," said Sarah. "And I want the people who are bullying other people to see that it's not a nice thing to do."

District 51 says another big push it will be making this spring is educating staff and students on third party intervention.

"What we really want to look at, what I think is really one of our biggest hopes for tackling this is the bystanders," said Haller. "It's about saying to kids who aren't being bullied, you have to stand up for your classmates. You can't turn away, you can't ignore that this is happening."

If you want to get involved, District 51 says it is looking for parents, students, and community members to be a part of the School Equity Advisory Committee. For more information you can contact Susana Wittrock at (970) 254-5272 or susana.wittrock@d51schools.org .

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