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Published: 4/3/2001

Schools faulted for bullying

BY TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Barbara Doane says parents must do their part. Barbara Doane says parents must do their part.
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Donald Riffle moved from Toledo to rural Henry County to get away from a neighborhood his mother considered too dangerous.

But life at Napoleon Middle School hasn't been any better for the 14-year-old eighth grader. At six feet tall, he is frequently teased and harassed about his size.

“It's 10 times worse. It's literally hell for my son to go to school every day,” said Rebecca Riffle. “When we complain, they say we'll talk to [the bully]. That's as far as it goes.”

Always painful and humiliating, bullying and teasing were at one time handled without the law, courts, or CNN.

But a series of shooting rampages at schools around the country has forced the nation to address the effects of teasing and the alienation and despair it often causes - sometimes with tragic consequences.

Many of the people who responded to The Blade's invitation three weeks ago to talk about their bullying stories had similar complaints: The school their child attended ignored the abuse or was ineffective in dealing with it.

The Blade received more than 100 phone calls, e-mails, or letters, and they're still trickling in. About half are from parents of children who they said are being harassed in school.

Others are from adults, still nursing the emotional scars of being bullied.

Teachers, doctors, social workers, and others pointed out the existence of national and local bullying programs to work against bullying, such as the new “Don't Laugh At Me” campaign featuring Peter Yarrow of the singing group Peter Paul and Mary.

Numerous callers said their sons or daughters were picked on because they are shy and/or big for their age.

Mrs. Riffle said her son is tall and very smart, but awkward. Classmates call him Donald Duck.

“He's been beaten. It's sad when he doesn't even want to leave his yard,” his mother said.

Recently, another boy threatened to beat Donald in the cafeteria. Principal Charles Beard heard about the incident and suspended the other boy for three days.

Now that she's gotten action from the school, Mrs. Riffle is hoping it will make a difference.

“We told him for many, many years to ignore them. The more he ignores them the worse it is.”

Mr. Beard said bullying and ridicule at the middle level is “atrocious. It's probably my number one problem - constant put-downs.

“At this age level, kids are pudgy, tall, small, immature, mature. If you're a mature female you get made fun of. If you're an immature female you get made fun of,” the Napoleon principal said.

Mr. Beard and an assistant principal attended training sessions in Columbus for the “Don't Laugh At Me” program. He hopes to introduce the curriculum, which promotes tolerance of others, into his school.

Linda Cain, the director of child care services at Sylvania Community Services, said teachers need to be trained to recognize and stop bullying at its root - making fun of other children.

“The parents are not teaching these skills to the kids. I think the teachers need to be trained in order to see the bullying, to find out what's going on,” said Mrs. Cain, who attended the Columbus conference.

She has become more sensitive to teasing behavior since attending the conference.

“A little boy was running down the hall with another boy. One boy said, `Hey let's run like [another child] runs. He runs like a girl,'” Mrs. Cain said. She stopped the boy and asked him how he would feel being teased that way.

“He apologized. He was sorry,” Mrs. Cain said. Without intervention, “I think he would have continued to make fun of the child.”

Barbara Doane, a fifth-grade teacher at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in South Toledo, said parents must examine their own performance.

She said she taught at the Catholic elementary school from 1976 to 1983, then left to be a full-time mother. When she returned to teaching in 1999, she was surprised by the change.

“Parents aren't being the parents their children need,” Mrs. Doane said.

She said parents don't model moral behavior enough, aren't with their children enough, and won't say “no” when it needs to be said. “Parents are not in charge - the children are, and more of them are being bullies.”

  • Kristina King of Bowling Green is someone else who survived verbal abuse in school.

    Ms. King, 31, was a normal child until Halloween, 1982, when she had her first epileptic seizure. She became used to having as many as 20 “petite” seizures in a single day.

    She was regularly called “freak” at Bowling Green High School.

    “As I walked up to my locker someone had put in big black letters C-O-M-A,” Ms. King recalled. “Kids tortured me on a daily basis.”

    One girl in particular terrorized her.

    “I can specifically remember a big, heavyset girl. I was afraid to go to school because every day she was going to beat me up because I was a freak,” she said.

    The behavior of the other students toward her basically was ignored, as far as Kristina could tell. Complaining about it, she feared, only made the situation worse.

    Ms. King underwent brain surgery in 1996 and has had only a handful of seizures since then. Now she's working on a degree in child development at Bowling Green State University and works as a volunteer with the Epilepsy Foundation.

  • Point Place resident Marisa Toth found that it took a federal case to get Woodward High School in Toledo to take her situation seriously.

    Never previously bullied or teased, Miss Toth, then a senior, was stunned, angry, and embarrassed when she saw obscene graffiti scrawled across the third-floor girl's restroom in January, 2000.

    The graffiti targeted her and her cousin.

    In the hours and days afterward, giggling and talking followed her everywhere, while the graffiti remained emblazoned across the back of the bathroom.

    Marisa, a straight-A student, cheerleader, and the class vice president, complained to Principal Eric Gordon, who identified the three students who committed the graffiti.

    But rather than ordering suspension or expulsion - the penalties spelled out in the school district code for vandalism - or at least an apology, the girls were ordered only to pay for the paint needed to cover the offensive language.

    “I don't think it's right to make someone feel bad about themselves and get away with it,” said Marisa, now a student at Owens Community College.

    She complained to the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, which forced Toledo Public Schools to add a policy against sexual harassment to its discipline code.

    Mr. Gordon, who now is principal of Clay High School in Oregon, said he was not aware of ongoing harassment as Miss Toth claimed.

    Gayle Schaber, the assistant principal for student activities at Woodward, said the school was trying to reduce suspensions. She said she was not aware that Miss Toth was as upset as she later claimed.

    “I feel that we did do a consequence,” Mrs. Schaber said.

    “A can of paint was adequate?” Miss Toth said. “I don't think so, and I'll never think so.”

  • Getting authorities to stop ignoring bullying behavior is a perennial problem, parents said.

    Part of the problem may be in the wording and meaning conveyed in school discipline codes.

    At Toledo Public Schools, for example, there are specific provisions prohibiting arson, possessing drugs, gambling, smoking, fighting, forgery, trespass, theft, and breaking and entering. But teasing and bullying are not expressly prohibited.

    The closest thing in the school district's code is a broadly written provision that says “a student shall not, by use of violence, force, coercion, threat, harassment, insubordination, or gang relationship, cause obstruction to the educational process.”

    One West Toledo parent had to get the police, the mayor's office, and a television news station involved to get some attention to the bullying of her daughter.

    According to Jennifer Stahl, her daughter, sixth grader Chelsea Koenig, 12, has been marked for teasing and abuse since a dispute over a boy early in the school year at Longfellow Elementary School. The feud burst into the open with a fight outside school in November.

    Mrs. Stahl claims the school administration has failed to take any decisive action against one girl, and several of that girl's friends, who Mrs. Stahl says continue to torment her daughter.

    Her daughter stayed home a week out of fear, but returned for the proficiency tests in March.

    “I don't know exactly what the discipline policy is, but they all feel the discipline was handled properly,” Mrs. Stahl said. “They kept calling [one girl's] mother, but there was no discipline really in school. These three girls are still in the same home room. They've never been suspended.”

    Mrs. Stahl got the school to pay some attention after she complained to the mayor and a local television news station and called the police.

    Sue Joseph, the Longfellow school principal, confirmed that a fight occurred, but said she was unaware of any harassment between the time of the fight in November and March 5, when she learned about an alleged plan by some girls to beat up Chelsea outside the school.

    Since then, she said, the girls have been spoken to by police, parents, and teachers, and the police have paid two visits to the school to check on Chelsea.

    “Kids tease each other all the time and it's difficult to decide whether it's bullying and threatening or just playful teasing,” Mrs. Joseph said. Anything that becomes threatening is sternly dealt with, she said.

  • Many who responded to The Blade related how their children reacted to harassing and bullying behavior by fighting back, only to find themselves in worse trouble than the aggressors.

    Alex Gilmore of Maumee now 16, endured several years of taunting. He had a learning disability, but in sixth-grade he was put in regular classrooms.

    Other boys picked on him, and fights broke out because he wouldn't back down.

    “I wasn't with the in-crowd. I wasn't really classified as anything,” Alex said.

    He complained to the teachers.

    “Sometimes they'd ignore me. Other times they'd take the kid out into the hall and talk to him and it'd be fine - for that period,” he said.

    The fights and his temper got him into trouble.

    In high school, Alex blew up. Another boy threw a giant spitball that splattered on his arm while in class. Alex threw the boy's books to the floor and yelled at him. He was suspended from school. After that he skipped school for two months.

    “I should have probably gone along with the punishment,” he says now, “but I didn't think it was fair. The other kid just got a couple of demerits.”

    He was forced to make a decision: go back to school or drop out. He chose another option, the Alternative Learning Center operated by the Lucas County Educational Service Center.

    Alex said he's not teased anymore.

    “[The harassing] pretty much stopped when I got into high school. I got a little bit bigger. I think some of the kids might have matured some, I don't know. They just stopped harassing me,” he said.

    Greg Smith, the superintendent of the Maumee school district, declined to discuss the case in detail.

  • Bullying has increasingly attracted formal attention.

    Richard and Yvonne St. John-Dutra of the San Francisco area have found their program “Challenge Day” much in demand in the last three years, since 12 students and a teacher were shot and killed at Columbine High School in Colorado by two students.

    The couple are giving their conferences at the rate of $5,000 a day to several Toledo-area high schools. At each school they train 100 student leaders and at least 20 adults in techniques for promoting respect and inclusion on their campuses.

    Dr. Loretta Novince, a child psychologist and adjunct professor from the University of Cincinnati, gave two days of workshops entitled “Bullies and Their Victims” to a seminar last month in Toledo. The seminar drew about 100 area teachers, administrators, and social workers.

    She said virtually all of the perpetrators in the school shootings around the country had been teased and taunted or worse.

    “In many schools, they don't want to hear about the bullying. We need to change our framework. We need to look at the perpetrator,” Dr. Novince said. “We need to stop the bullying.”

    “Instead of always telling the victim to walk away or move to another classroom, how about the bully walking away or moving to another classroom?”

    She believes that bullying tendencies can be identified at an early age.

    Dr. Novince's approach is one that was set forth at a schoolyard bullying conference held at Harvard University in 1987. She said the conference started an international campaign to stamp out bullying that has led to tougher regulations in some countries.

    A declaration of rights for children was formulated at the conference:

    “Every individual should have the right to be spared oppression and repeated, intentional humiliation. No student should be afraid of going to school or of being harassed, and no parent should have to worry about such things happening.

    “There is no evidence that a tolerant attitude of bullying will help bullies outgrow their anti-social behavior patterns. Ignoring bullying perpetuates and gives license to the behavior.”



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