Lowcountry schools, police working together to prevent, respond to 'very serious issue' of bullying
MOUNT PLEASANT — The teenager was walking down the Wando High School hallway when someone grabbed his booksack strap and shoved him into the boys’ bathroom.
In Charleston County, students, parents or community members can call the toll-free tip line that allows them to anonymously report bullying, or any other problem in the district. The message is transmitted to district officials’ voicemail and e-mail. Emergency situations will be dealt with immediately, while others will receive a response. The number is (877) 250-2790.
He tried to get away, but his classmate used both hands to force his head and neck down into a urinal. Desperate to break loose, he swung his leg backward into his aggressor’s crotch and fled the bathroom.
Some children may show warning signs that they are being bullied, while others may not. Here’s some of what parents should look for:
Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics or jewelry.
Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness.
Changes in eating habits, such as suddenly skipping meals or binge eating. Kids may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch.
Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares.
Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork or not wanting to go to school.
Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations.
Feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem.
Self-destructive behaviors, such as running away from home, harming themselves or talking about suicide.
He’s the kind of kid who is picked on a lot, and it’s the kind of incident that schools and police take seriously.
“Everyone is more sensitive to it,” said Bob Stevens, a Charleston County School District official who has worked extensively on bullying. “Sometimes people misunderstand what it is, but it is a very, very serious issue that we’re seeing more and more of. It’s on everyone’s radar.”
Bullying is defined as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time,” according to the federal government.
Bullying has become epidemic in some communities, and movies and celebrities have pushed the issue onto the national stage. Last month, the U.S. Department of Education held its third annual Bullying Prevention Summit in the nation’s capital, focusing on coordinating anti-bullying efforts with the best available research.
Every school in South Carolina is required by state law to have specific policies and procedures to handle bullying, and there’s no one prescribed way to do it.
Most local districts follow the same general pattern, and Lowcountry school employees are required to report alleged instances of bullying to the school’s leadership.
In the Wando High incident that happened about three weeks ago, the bullied student told his mother, but it was a teacher who heard rumors about the “swirly” and reported it to an assistant principal that triggered an investigation.
School officials declined to respond to the newspaper’s request for comment on the consequences the bully faced.
In Charleston County, once notification occurs, employees are required to look into what happened and figure out whether the situation met the definition of bullying, specifically that the harassment was ongoing and not an isolated incident, Stevens said.
They will talk to the involved students separately, teach the victim and aggressor ways to avoid the situation going forward, and decide any consequences.
Schools also must figure out whether to involve law enforcement, and state law requires that to happen in situations in which students were, or could have been, harmed, said Michael Reidenbach, a school resource officer at Wando High.
Schools’ responses are separate from that of police, although their investigations often happen in parallel, he said. Officers make decisions on whether to charge students based on different factors, including the victim, the seriousness of the incident and the consequences doled out by school administrators.
In the Wando High incident, the victim’s mother said her son already had shared what happened with her. She said he “gets picked on a lot” and asked that the other teen involved be arrested. He was charged with third-degree assault.
The distinction between the way schools and police handle school-based crimes came up this week at a Charleston County school board meeting, and board members disagreed about whether law enforcement should or could assume parent-notification responsibilities beyond what the law requires.
Schools and police emphasize prevention as key. In suburban Dorchester District 2, the district has been proactive in training students and faculty to know what bullying looks like and sounds like so everyone can be “vigilant in looking for, recognizing, and reporting it,” said Linda Huffman, the district’s assistant superintendent of administration and personnel.
They talk about it with students in assemblies, review it in classrooms and send employees to prevention training, she said.
“You heighten the awareness of everyone in the building,” Huffman said. “What you want to do with students is well-equip them to deal with whatever may come their way.”
The same holds true in its neighboring districts, Berkeley and Charleston. In Charleston, many schools have an intervention strategy for the bully and victim, as well as a school-wide teaching component. For the latter, schools want to ensure that students and faculty understand what should be happening.
“A lot of time is spent getting everyone in the school saying, ‘This is not acceptable,’?” Stevens said.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.