Parent appreciates sessions to address bullying

by Paula Gajewski Mickelson
Special to Sun Thisweek

On Tuesday, Dec. 11, I joined ninth-graders at Apple Valley High School for an assembly about bullying. This group of 400-plus freshmen and their teachers watched a 40-minute documentary “Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History.”

This movie, the seventh film produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program (www.tolerance.org), tells the powerful story of Jamie Nabozny, who as a young man in northern Wisconsin took action against the bullying he experienced in school. Jamie’s landmark case against the Ashland, Wis., school district and administrators was the first successful legal action that challenged anti-gay violence in public school based on the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides for equal protections.

After viewing this film, Jamie was introduced to the group and spent the next hour talking with the students about his experiences and current work of presenting to student and school groups across the country so that his experiences are not repeated.

As the chair of the AVHS Site Council, I was so proud of our freshmen that day. Their behavior and conduct was exemplary. You could have heard a pin drop as they watched the movie; I didn’t see one student misbehave. I was impressed with Jamie’s easy-going and engaging presentation style, one that clearly resonated with his audience. I was touched by his story and how he skillfully addressed student questions, which ranged from the light-hearted “What did you do with the settlement money?” to the thoughtful “What would you tell a friend who is thinking about suicide?” and touching “Did you forgive the bullies?”

As a mom, I was moved beyond words. Throughout the movie my attention was drawn to Jamie’s parents, especially his mom, their heartbreaking experience and desperate desire to support and protect their beloved son in a public school system that was failing them.

While gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender students are often the targets, bullying can be experienced by anyone. Students are bullied for a wide variety of reasons based on difference – they are not tall or short enough, fat or thin enough, they like or do “odd” things and are perceived as “less than” by the bully. Jamie told the audience that research shows the reasons behind a bully’s actions are less about what is “wrong” with the victim and most often rooted in the bully’s own insecurities.

Since Jamie’s case was settled in 1995, great improvements have been realized in the area of student protection against bullying, but there is much yet to be done.

The following statistics are staggering:

GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey (2007) www.tolerance.org/supplement/bullying-numbers

• 9 in 10 (86.2 percent) LGBT students reported being bullied.

• More than half (60.8 percent) reported they felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation.

• 32.7 percent of LGBT students missed a day of school because of feeling unsafe, compared to only 4.5 percent of a national sample of secondary school students.

“The 411 of Bullying” George Washington University (2004) www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/grants/226235.pdf

• Of children in sixth through 10th grade, more than 3.2 million — nearly one in six — are victims of bullying each year, while 3.7 million bully other children (Fox, et al, 2003).

• Compared to their peers, students who are bullied are five times more likely to be depressed. Bullied boys are four times more likely to be suicidal; bullied girls are eight times more likely to be suicidal (Bullying Prevention is Crime Prevention, 2003).

Community-Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice www.cops.usdoj.gov/files/RIC/Publications/e07063414-guide.pdf

• In two-thirds of recent school shootings (for which the shooter was still alive to report), the attackers had previously been bullied. “In those cases, the experience of bullying appeared to play a major role in motivating the attacker.”

• A recent study of a nationally representative sample of students found higher levels of bullying in America than in some other countries. Thirteen percent of sixth- through 10th-grade students bully, 10 percent reported being victims, and an additional 6 percent are victim-bullies. This study excluded elementary-age students (who often experience high levels of bullying) and did not limit bullying to school grounds. Several smaller studies from different parts of the country confirm high levels of bullying behaviors, with 10 to 29 percent of students reported to be either bullies or victims.

• Studies suggest only between 10 and 20 percent of noninvolved students provide any real help when another student is victimized.

I have been and continue to be proud to send my children to schools in District 196, including Apple Valley High School. I know that no school or district is perfect. We are fortunate to live in a school district that is not failing our students and supports activities like the ninth-grade assembly. Teachers and school administrators are not, and cannot, be solely responsible for addressing this issue. Parents, guardians and adults in these students’ lives have to be actively engaged in this process.

Please join me, members of the AVHS Site Council and school staff and administrators Thursday, Jan. 24 at 7:30 p.m. in the Apple Valley High School theater for a Parent Forum: Bullying. Together we will watch the documentary “Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History,” which will be followed by a brief discussion about how the topic is addressed.

Student survey results on the topic of bullying and the atmosphere at AVHS will also be shared.

This event is free and open to anyone who is interested. I hope you will join us as we view this powerful film and continue this conversation together.

Paula Gajewski Mickelson is the parent of District 196 students and Apple Valley High School Site Council chairwoman. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.

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