Kids call attention to school bullies
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Loren Moreno
On stage, 9-year-old Sean Romo plays a schoolyard bully stealing a girl's lunch money, but in real life, he is the one who gets pushed around.
"(The bullies) do all kinds of things — they tease me, they play tricks on me," said Sean, a fourth-grader at Wai'alae School. "I don't like it."
Sean is among about two dozen students involved in the Peace Table Project — an afterschool conflict resolution course. Students in the program discuss many types of problems, but bullying is the "most pressing on their minds in terms of what they deal with on a daily basis," said project coordinator Lisa Jensen.
The problem is also on the minds of some lawmakers, who want the state Department of Education to take a stronger stand against bullying.
A recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 14.4 percent of students ages 12 to 18 report being bullied at school. But Jensen believes the incidence of bullying is much higher.
"It is all very underreported and under-attended as a problem," said Jensen, adding that parents and even teachers don't recognize its extent. "It's everywhere."
Psychologist Robert Woliver, of Kane'ohe, said almost every student will encounter a bully at some point. "It's a common theme in my practice," he said.
The complaints of parents and students have reached state lawmakers and moved those concerned with issues facing children to introduce a resolution asking the Department of Education to do a better job of enforcing anti-bullying policies.
Previous attempts to pass similar resolutions failed, but state Rep. Dennis Arakaki said students whom he and other lawmakers have talked to have identified bullying as their No. 1 problem. More attention must be brought to the problem, he said.
The resolution asks the state DOE to come up with more "consistent ways of approaching this problem," said Arakaki, D-30th (Moanalua, Kalihi Valley.)
But DOE officials say the resolution largely addresses an issue already included in Chapter 19, the department's conduct and discipline policy, and individual school policies.
The problem prompted the play last week at Wai'alae School. A group of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders with the Peace Table Project wrote "Beating Bullies" to help other students, and to help parents understand that the problem exists. Anyone concerned about bullying was invited.
ASHAMED TO SPEAK UP
Afterward, during a group discussion including parents, educators and kids from the play and in the audience, Sean — the bully in the play — encouraged other students to do what he is taught in Peace Table: Be confident in yourself and seek the help of an adult if you are having problems.
"If somebody's hitting you and you don't like it, talk to somebody about it," he said.
But Jensen said most students who are bullied do not talk about the problem.
"They're ashamed, or they're afraid of retaliation," she said.
Most parents shrug off the problem as part of growing up, said Jensen. The Peace Table students included that theme in their play because they said adults don't understand.
Alana Freitas, 9, said she is often teased by the same bully on the playground at recess — a friend who did not like one of her other friends. One day Alana was approached by the bully because she was playing with the other girl.
"She came up to me and said, 'What are you doing playing with them? You're supposed to be playing with me,' " said Alana. "She was always mean to me," said Alana.
Alana's mom, Sharon, said she is concerned about what her daughter deals with, but she wasn't sure she would classify some of it as bullying. "It's kind of hard to tell," she said.
Many parents don't realize that to the child, this problem is very real and can be emotionally damaging, said Woliver, the psychologist, speaking later in a telephone interview.
"Every parent is going to confront this," said Woliver. "It is important to take the concerns seriously."
Erin Bamer, 11, said she is constantly tormented for looking and acting different. "People mimic me," said Erin. "Or this one boy teases me and says, 'Redheads are ugly.' "
Nine-year-old Michaela Carroll said teasing and taunting by bullies take an emotional toll.
"Sometimes I don't want to go to school," said Michaela, a fourth-grader at Wai'alae School. "I have pretended to be sick so I don't have to go."
SHOULDN'T SHRUG IT OFF
Teachers and administrators need to take the problem seriously too, said Kuulei Serna, an assistant professor of education at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.
"Adults kind of neglect the fact that it is taking place," said Serna, who has worked with the DOE to develop bullying prevention techniques for teachers. She said parents and teachers often mistake the problem as "kids being kids."
"Bullying is everywhere — from excluding someone from a group to physically hurting someone," said Serna.
Kathy Shinagawa's 11-year-old son, Hikaru, has been bullied almost since he started school, she said. "It's very frustrating as a parent because you're not there," she said. "You feel helpless."
Shinagawa has reached an agreement with Hikaru's school to allow her son to visit the counselor if he feels picked on. "He has anger issues because of this, and I'm trying to help him find ways of dealing with it," she said.
Woliver encouraged parents to do what Shinagawa did. "Help kids work out a plan to deal with bullies," said Woliver. It could consist of everything from ignoring a bully, telling a teacher, being assertive and even fighting back.
Woliver said school administrators also need to crack down on bullying. "It is really important for schools to be proactive and put an end to bullying," he said.
That idea prompted the anti-bullying resolution, which asks school administrators to be more conscious of the problem.
"It is so inconsistent how it is handled at different levels and at different schools," said Ara-kaki. "When intimidation and harassment interfere with a student's education, it has to be given more serious attention."
Previous resolutions failed to pass, mainly because the DOE did not support them, said Arakaki.
Greg Knudsen, DOE spokesman, said Chapter 19 and other policies already address bullying.
"The department wants to eliminate bullying and would not claim that it has completely eradicated it," said Knudsen. The word "bullying" was added to the Chapter 19 statute in 2000, and the DOE treats it as a serious offense, said Knudsen.
But no amount of legislation or policies will make bullying go away, said Jensen.
"(Bullying) is human nature, and unless there is a concerted effort to reverse the behavior, kids will always be dealing with this problem," she said.
Parents and teachers need to help build children's self-worth and self-esteem so they have the tools to "get through without being damaged," said Jensen.
Reach Loren Moreno at email@example.com.