The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

November 13, 2013

True Blue Local schools unite against bullying

By Lisa Shrewsberry
Lifestyles Editor

— When Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin abruptly left his team amid allegations of harsh taunting from teammate Richie Incognito, media reports didn’t hesitate to call it bullying.

To call exchanges between 300-plus pound NFL football players bullying could be perceived as a leap. But the release of intimidating text messages, racial slurs and offensive sexual references at the center of the incident proves that no one, not even the toughest of the tough, is immune to being a target.

Bullying happens at schools, it happens in the workplace and in the locker rooms of the most elite sports teams. Bullying knows no boundaries because bullies know no boundaries.

Wednesday, Nov. 20, Raleigh Education Service Agencies (RESA 1) is asking schools in Mercer, Monroe, McDowell, Raleigh, Wyoming and Summers counties to promote “Blue Shirt Day,” a time for educators, staff, students and the community to wear blue shirts symbolizing peace. The commitment is one of a host of activities comprising Bullying Prevention Week, set to heighten awareness of bullying and to employ strategies to stop it.

Ann Sammons, BSN, MS and Regional School Wellness Specialist for RESA 1, recently established a team of individuals from the county boards of education to pool resources and ideas for keeping schools bully and bullying free. Her group decided to designate the special week to focus attention on the problem as an extension of a statewide initiative, the It Does Matter campaign, promoted by the West Virginia State Department of Education.

“Our campaign encourages open conversation about bullying and students in southern West Virginia,” said Sammons. “We have to start the conversation.”

The conversation is different and in many ways addresses a problem exponentially more menacing than it used to be.

“Technology has empowered bullies and now there’s a whole anonymity factor,” explains Tracy King, MSW, LGSW, director of Children’s Services with FMRS Health Systems Inc., and a charter member of the special RESA 1 team. King routinely counsels children who are being bullied, both in the traditional sense and within the phenomenon of cyber-bullying.

“Behind that keyboard, there’s a sense of detachment. There’s a constant bombardment — it comes across on the phone, the iPad or iPod. It used to be that to call someone (and bully them) or start a rumor took time and effort. Now, once it’s out there, it’s everywhere.”

King suggested a book that was purchased by RESA 1 and is now being distributed to every principal within the six-county school region, “Please Stop Laughing At Us,” the sequel to author and bullying expert Jodee Blanco’s 2003 New York Times best-selling memoir “Please Stop Laughing At Me.”

“(Blanco) teaches about how to intervene and the impact of bullying. She gives a realistic understanding of what it was like growing up being constantly bullied and how it affected her as an adult,” stated King.

Both Sammons and King hope to find the resources to bring Blanco and possibly other experts in for a future conference for teachers and parents on how to deal with bullying in their schools and communities.

West Virginia State Trooper J.M. Ellison with the Crimes Against Children task force, is also part of the RESA 1 bullying prevention group. He has seen many instances of the powerfully destructive consequences of pictures being circulated over the Internet and via cell phones, especially sexually explicit ones.

“It’s called sextortion. Someone makes the mistake of taking a photograph — whether another kid at school or an adult — or a predator.  They use that picture (threateningly) to extort more pictures and possibly even try to get physical. This is just one of many types of bullying we’re seeing.”

Ellison is speaking out to discourage young people from taking explicit pictures of themselves, even if intended to stay private or to share with one person.

“Once it’s out in the open, it can get so widely circulated in an instant that a whole bunch of kids may pick at or gang up on the person, calling them names and stereotyping.”

Ellison says there are definitely cases law enforcement will get involved in, especially with child pornography or threats of violence.

“Even if a juvenile takes a (sexually explicit) photograph of another juvenile and starts sending it to other people, he or she can be found guilty of felony distribution of child pornography.”

Sammons hopes the awareness strategies will stop the problem before it escalates to the point of harm to anyone. She believes a diverse team and the experience of members like King and Ellison will assist in the development of training and programs to dissuade bullying, especially in the schools.

“We want school personnel talking to students about bullying and prevention. We want to empower kids to address bullying too, so it’s not always an adult-child confrontation.”

Sammons directs parents and students to the West Virginia Department of Education website for anti-bullying resources, including an online quiz to tell who is prone to bullying practices, at http://wvde.state.wv.us  /it-does-matter/

— E-mail: lshrewsberry@register-herald.com