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4/21/2012 9:05:00 AM
Although the problem isn't new, abuse is no longer confined to school grounds
Challenges: Shay Pope, 18, talks about transferring to Greenfield-Central High School after being bullied at her previous school.  Tom Russo / Daily Reporter
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Challenges: Shay Pope, 18, talks about transferring to Greenfield-Central High School after being bullied at her previous school.  Tom Russo / Daily Reporter

Noelle M. Steele, Daily Reporter Editor-in-chief

GREENFIELD — The teasing started when Shay Pope was in the seventh grade.

A biracial student at a predominantly white school, she still remembers the first time someone called her a nigger.

For years, Pope quietly endured the taunts of her classmates. They made fun of her in the hallway, bullied her when teachers weren’t looking. They called her a mutt for being of mixed race.

An estimated one in every four students is bullied at school, said Tammy Moon, president and CEO of the Indianapolis-based non-profit advocacy group Bullying Prevention Alliance. And Hancock County school officials know their students are no exception to the trend.

Indiana state law defines bullying as a repeated gesture – physical, verbal, written or otherwise – committed by one student or a group of students against another student with the intent to harass, ridicule, humiliate, intimidate or harm.

But the reality for victims who suffer abuse at the hands of their peers is not always so easily defined.

What starts as minor spat – a joke, even – can escalate, and among technology-savvy teens, spill over into social media circles, which can be more difficult for school officials to monitor, especially when the interaction happens outside the classroom.

With a post or a Tweet online for everyone to see, the fight is as public as if the students were throwing punches outside the school cafeteria.

At her former school in Henry County, Pope had a spot on the volleyball team. She didn’t want to make trouble and risk being kicked off. She eventually talked to her principal, but the teasing didn’t let up. Her sophomore year, she transferred to Greenfield-Central High School, where she is now a senior.

At G-C, Pope found new friends, a spot on the volleyball team and a sense of belonging.

But last fall, an incident at a football game made her a victim all over again.

A group of students got into an argument over who had to sit up in the bleachers to cheer on the Cougars and who had dibs on the coveted spot along the fence by the field.

Pope, along with other seniors, asked the underclassmen to move. One of her classmates shot back that she could move – to the back of the bus.

“I just went to the car and started crying,” Pope said. “You could have called me anything under the sun, but … it was because I was black. It wasn’t in reference to anything else.”

The student who uttered the taunt later expressed remorse and was disciplined by the school.

In cases like Pope’s, school officials find themselves working to correct behavior after a student has already been victimized. It many cases, that leaves them to referee in a game of he said, she said.

Bullying is not new. There have been bullies as long as there have been schoolyards.

But experts say bullies have become more brazen, both on and off school grounds.

And the 24-hour availability of social media has provided bullies unprecedented access to potential targets.

Home is no longer a safe haven.

Via Facebook, Twitter and more, abuse that would have been confined to the classroom has exploded into the largely unpoliced digital realm.

Today, anti-bullying campaigns have become as common in schools as those addressing underage drinking and drug use.

Educators grapple with trying to prevent bullying before it starts, respond accordingly when it does and prevent it from happening again – a task that, in some cases, is impossible.

Bully Prevention Alliance, which was founded in 2010, seeks to spread bullying awareness in schools, as well as provide resources to victims and their families.

The alliance is the culmination of years of research that began nearly a decade earlier, when founder Moon’s daughter was a third-grader at Harris Elementary School in Greenfield.

MacKenzie was one of the shortest kids in the class, and she suffered from two learning disabilities – combined, they made her an easy target.

Moon heard her daughter complain for almost two years about a boy who constantly picked on her. She didn’t realize how serious the situation was until the boy attacked her daughter in the lunch line one day, hitting her over the head with a metal lunch box.

The incident had long-term repercussions.

“It followed her,” Moon said. “It was just a constant battle.”

Schools that have adopted bullying curricula are on the right track, as the problem cannot be solved by a single convocation or seminar series, Moon said.

Education from an early age is key, she said.

While there are curricula designed to help teachers address bullying in the classroom, Moon sees it as more practical for bullying awareness to be incorporated into the day’s lesson.

“Elementary schools can actually do this … with literally just the books in their classroom,” she said. “They don’t need to have a curriculum. It needs to be something that’s done on a daily basis, continuously.”

Bullies are common figures in children’s literature, she cited by way of example.

“If you talk about that in reading circles and you actually put a name with their behavior, … and you take and start that dialogue … and you allow them to give you that feedback, it changes it,” she said.

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, 49 states have laws on bullying at school, and legislators in 11 states are looking at proposed updates or changes to their statutes. Only 14 states have laws that address cyberbullying specifically.

During the Indiana General Assembly’s last session, a proposed bill that would have strengthened schools’ authority to punish bullying that happens off school grounds was met with resistance.

Legislators opted to have the issue examined further by a summer study committee after opponents of the bill raised concerns about the possibility it would impede students’ First Amendment rights.

If the bill were to pass, Indiana would be the eighth state to enact a law allowing administrators to hold students accountable for bullying that happens off campus.

In the most severe cases, bullying can lead to criminal charges, though Hancock County Prosecutor Michael Griffin said that is rare, unless the behavior escalates to violence.

Griffin is speaking at a community event next week about bullying in local schools, which he calls “stable but unaddressed.”

Griffin applauds efforts by schools officials to educate students on the potential long-term effect of bullying their fellow students. Still, there is a long way to go.

“The schools are just now taking action to begin to combat bullying,” Griffin said. “Those are very encouraging things. In this community, there’s increasing awareness going on.”

National attention to the issue has helped to both raise awareness of the problem and compound it, law enforcement officers say.

“Bullying” has now become a buzz word evoked by any student who feels picked on, said New Palestine Police Chief Robert Ehle.

“As soon as one person says one cross word to you – ‘I’m being bullied,’” Ehle said. “It pulls an officer away from being able to patrol the streets … because of what’s going on between two little friends.”

And yet, Ehle acknowledges there are cases when students are legitimately being victimized.

Officers are called into the school when a situation arises there, but more often than not, police learn the argument initiated off school grounds via text message or Facebook, Ehle said.

“It comes to school and it makes them mad enough that sometimes we have altercations,” he said.

Despite schools’ best efforts to combat bullying, there will always be students who pick on those they see as weak, and that’s not a situation that’s likely to improve as the popularity of social media grows, Ehle said.

“Matter of fact,” he said, “it’s probably just gonna get worse.”

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