The school district will be conducting a survey to determine whether its bullying level is comparable to the national level.
"My concern is identifying how much of a problem it is in Loudoun County," School Board chairman John Andrews said Monday. "It is throughout the schools, but … to what level?"
The administration developed an anti-bullying program and trained principals and counselors last year. Teachers received training before school started this September.
Student Services Supervisor Betsy Young told the School Board Sept. 28 that cyberbullying is compounding the problem. On Monday, she said a rising number of students are using the Internet to torment their peers. "A lot of the cyberbullying occurs in the afternoons and evenings, and parents need to be made aware of what is happening,’ she said. "The fallout usually occurs in school. Bullying used to happen in the school yard. Now it can reach thousands of homes where kids can be relentlessly bullied."
Brian Zwit, executive director of America Online’s Integrity Assurance, said the cruelty is actually worse on the Internet. "Cyberbullying is not any different than the bullying you see on the playground already," he said, in a telephone interview. "The difference is the speed at which you transmit and how far it will go and how fast it will go."
He said the severity of the problem is higher because the bullies think their behavior is anonymous and they won’t get caught. They can hide their identities by switching names, profiles and Web sites, he said. "I’ve seen kids put together instant polls … and send it to their friends and all of the kids will vote whether the person is a nerd or not."
STUDENTS ALSO BULLY through instant messaging, which mimics offline communication, and chat rooms, he said.
Young said students are using cell phones to take pictures and loading them onto the Internet, putting different body parts with the person in the picture.
Zwit said teachers and parents should be aware of the problem and take action. If a child is bullying others, discipline should be administered. If a child is the target, gather information and contact the Internet service provider. If someone has been threatened, contact the police.
Nationally, school officials have paid closer attention to the issue since the 1999 Columbine High School killings in Littleton, Colo. Closer to home, a Prince William County student threatened to shoot a high-powered rifle in June at people in Bull Run Middle School. The boy’s father said his son had been tormented by bullies.
THE SCHOOL BOARD set about a dozen new goals this fall, including one to strengthen programs that support safe learning environments free of bullying, teasing and physical violence.
Young said the 2001 "Communities that Care" survey found that 78 percent of the county’s students felt safe in school, and 90 percent felt it was wrong to pick a fight with someone. The survey said 58 percent felt it is all right to beat up someone if he or she started a fight. Eighth, tenth and twelfth graders filled out the surveys. A similar study was conducted last year, but those questions were not extrapolated from the findings, she said.
School Board member Warren Geurin (Sterling) said about 20 percent of the students or 8,000 students were subjected to bullying, based on that study. He expressed skepticism. "I think our school administrators are doing a wonderful job of policing the problem," he said.
Joseph Guzman (Sugarland) said it is essential to pay close attention to the issue, because schools need to ensure the students are provided with a positive learning environment. Andrews agreed, saying the School Board’s aim is to eliminate the behavioral problem. "That might be difficult," he said. "But for every child you are able to reach, that is one less child stressed about going to school."
ALLYNE ZAPPALLA, school social worker, told the board that bullying leads to substance abuse, self-mutilation, suicide and depression.
Young said the problem has been treated wrongly as a harmless rite of passage in the past. "It’s very abusive, and it has long-lasting effects," she said.
Bob Ohneiser (Broad Run) recommended that the issue be part of a school’s evaluation if bullying is prevalent. Students should be able to report the problem without negative repercussions, he added. He suggested that more school personnel stand in the halls during class changes to ensure pushing and shoving are not tolerated. That approach is currently being utilized. Ohneiser also called for schools to provide self-protection lessons during physical education classes at the middle and elementary school levels.
Young said some people wrongly believe that the best way to deal with bullying situations is to have the students work it out themselves. She dispelled two other myths:
* Myth: Only boys bully.
* Truth: Girls bully through social exclusion, body language, three-way calling, and using close friendships as weapons.
* Myth: Bullies are insecure and have low self-esteem.
* Truth: Bullies tend to be popular students with good social skills. They have the desire to dominate. They also have the inability to accept responsibility for their behavior. They possess greater than average aggressive behavior patterns and lack empathy for the victim.
Young said people believe that victims are singled out by bullies because of their appearance. That, too, is inaccurate. The victims are chosen because of their insecurities and reactions to the bullying, she said.
She pointed to the impact bullying can have on a school, saying that it turned out to be a factor in two-thirds of the 37 school shootings nationwide. She blamed the behavior on students dropping out or skipping school. She said studies show that 10 percent of the students nationally drop out of school, and 160,000 students skip school every day.
Bullying leads to a decrease in academic ability and has generated lawsuits over the failure to provide appropriate supervision, she added.
She advised that bystanders should get involved. If they intervene, an incident could stop within 10 seconds, she said.