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Behind the Bullying: Serious Problem or Much Ado About Nothing?

A videotaped fight at Thomas Jefferson Middle School raises flags for some parents, but is there really something to worry about?

As a first-grader in the Port Washington-Saukville School District, Jenny did not want to go to school.

The drive to school would sometimes end with Jenny locking the doors to the car — with herself inside and her mother on the outside — as an attempt to avoid heading to classes for the day.

When Jenny — not her real name — was finally out of the car, the screaming and crying did not stop as her mom said goodbye and sent her to school for the day.

Jenny was the victim of a bully.

In an early incident that school year, the bully cornered Jenny in the bathroom and threw her against the sink, leaving her with bruises. When Jenny’s mom approached the school principal, she said he blew her off. Several times.

“The problems kept continuing — and it was to the point that I had to drag my little girl down my staircase … she would hop out of my car screaming and crying because she was afraid to go to school,” Jenny’s mom said. “I didn’t really blame the bully, but I was (upset) that (the school staff) was letting it continue. … I had to take my daughter down to counseling because of it.”

“I had had enough with (the principal) not trying to work with us and the kids. It probably took several months before … I finally went in to the district office," she said. "I basically went in by (Superintendent Mike) Weber two to three times and that’s when they started doing something.”

Because of the physical nature of the bullying, a teacher was eventually given the task of supervising Jenny so that the bully would not have the opportunity to be alone with the girl. This lasted for a few weeks.

Now, as fourth-graders, Jenny and the bully don’t have such drastic encounters — though her mom has advised Jenny to avoid the bully to prevent any conflicts.

Jenny’s mom is a member of one of nine district families who spoke to Patch about this issue, eight of which reported some type of experience with bullying in the schools. Most names have been changed or kept anonymous in this story to protect the identities of the victims of bullying.

Video illustrates the problem

The issue of bullying in Port schools came to the forefront in mid-January when a video surfaced of a couple of kids in the Thomas Jefferson Middle School locker room involved in a fight.

The video was shared on Facebook and eventually e-mailed to Principal Arlan Galarowicz, who set plans in motion to speak with the parents and students and deal with the problem. Both Galarowicz and Port Washington Police Chief Kevin Hingiss said the fight was an isolated incident.

And while the fight may have been isolated, it did provide proof that sometimes these things happen — and that this time, it was real.

Those interviewed for this story could easily point out the reasons some children are victims of bullying: religion, physical appearance, learning disabilities, sexuality, peer pressure to date and even just for being nice.

“It does happen to the nice kids — the social kids, but (the ones) that don’t have that tough attitude,” one parent said. “The people that don’t stick out, they don’t get picked on.”

One sophomore reported being called fat and ugly, and was punched recently by another group of high school girls. The bullies used these words to insult the sophomore’s entire group of friends, and the students were separated out to be in different classes.

Another parent said her high school son was called fat, among other names, all of which led him to believe he wouldn’t be able to get a girlfriend. That student at one point text messaged his friends, saying he was going to commit suicide because of the continual harassment. His mom found out about the message, but continues to combat problems between his son and other kids at the school.

Another student, who is Jewish, was harassed because of his religion. At one point, students took apart his bike and threw it on the school roof. The students who destroyed his bike, the parent said, never saw any consequences. In fact, the parent pointed out, if the student tried to stand up for his religion, it only made things worse.

“I blame a lot of it on myself,” the parent said, “because I moved to an area where people aren’t very accepting. If you’re a maverick, you’re an outcast in Port Washington.”

Teaching respect as a proactive approach

Despite the concerns raised by parents and students, principals at district schools say the teachers’ curriculum is infused with topics to educate students about respect, in hopes of creating an atmosphere where students are accepting of differences and can recognize bullying when they see it.

The curriculum starts from day one, they said.

“This is my 38th year in the district. There’s always been bullying, unfortunately — and we’ve taken some positive strides in the last few years … to try to come up with ways in our district to deal with it,” Galarowicz said. “You see that surface in situations like the high school — with dealing with Grafton with the death of the player … (the students) stepped forward. … Those kids have gone through the system and we’re trying to foster that same attitude in all the kids.”

Dunwiddie Elementary Principal Diane Johnson said students start in preschool with a concept called “conscious discipline,” and continue throughout the grades using puppets and other role-playing models to teach the kids acceptance.

The concept of respect is ongoing throughout middle school and into high school, inevitably evolving to encompass a respectful attitude applicable to all sorts of environments and situations.

If the schools encounter a problem that is believed to be bullying, Galarowicz said there are immediate consequences for the bully. Exactly how each problem is handled is something discussed between parents, staff and students and district staff did not want to divulge such details for privacy reasons.

But bullying also happens outside school walls, a place where district staff members really have no control of the problem. The Internet, Galarowizc said, has also helped to make bullying a bigger problem. 

Related story: Police chief wants to bring back school liaison officer.

Recognizing this, the schools also put an emphasis on positive interaction between the kids outside of the classroom — encouraging kids to participate in different activities, clubs or groups in order to build relationships, hopefully helping the students to find respect for one another.

Galarowicz sent a letter to parents after the recent locker room fight, explaining the steps being taken after the incident and detailing the different programs that have been and will be made available to students — and parents — in order to combat the issue of bullying.

"We will not tolerate such behaviors and we have taken steps to strengthen our approaches to these issues," he wrote. "During the locker room situation, nearly 30 students observed the fight, yet we didn’t find out about the fight until a parent e-mailed me the video clip in the evening. Indeed, nearly 30 students could have prevented the fight. Most of the time students tell us about pending student issues before they erupt into a fight. This must continue."

Port schools aren't alone

Bullying isn’t exactly a new phenomenon to society, and, according to one parent, it's not a problem that’s out of control here.

“I think bullying is huge — I’ve seen it everywhere,” she said. Her family moved here from Brookfield, and the switch in schools didn’t come easy for her daughter.

“My daughter did not have a warm welcome from the kids at (Thomas Jefferson),” the parent said. “She just kept being tormented. She would come home every day and she would cry and say, ‘I don’t want to go to school anymore.’ It was bad, it wasn’t something that was just made up.”

Related story: Bullying is a worldwide problem

This parent eventually took the problem into her own hands: she visited the school during its lunch hour, and had a talk with the bully — explaining to the bully how she was hurting her daughter’s feelings and that she was prepared to have a talk with the bully’s parents if it did not stop.

That conversation was enough to give her daughter some peace and quiet, though the parent doesn’t recommend that others follow suit.

“I wouldn’t recommend they do what I did,” she said. “Just always encourage your child and … be proactive.”

Some say schools slow to react

Though this mother was the only one who took such steps to end the bullying, she was not alone in getting the feeling that the school wasn’t doing enough to fix the child’s problems.

Two other families reported experiences that took continual pleas by parents and students to get some help from school staff, the results of which weren’t necessarily satisfactory.

Some parents said they continually had to keep school staff aware of the ongoing problem, although they also said the staff was working with them to resolve the issue.

“I believe that all staff are taking bullying and harassment seriously," said High School Principal Eric Burke. "(When a problem arises) they listen to the story, and they check it out and if it needs to be dealt with ... we do all we can. We take it very seriously."

And some of the people who spoke with Patch agree — despite having problems with bullying, students and parents say that staff take adequate steps to resolve the problem, effectively communicating amongst all parties involved.

“Even though I didn’t get immediate results I wanted at (Jefferson), I really do like the school system,” said the parent who visited her daughter’s bully. “So many people are quick to judge and and place the blame on someone and say it’s the teachers’ fault. Well, no — I think it goes deeper than that.”

Parents, students seek solutions

Some of the parents and students who spoke to Patch were quick to point out that any negative criticism of the way bullying problems are handled in the schools is unwarranted — and does nothing to help the situation.

“The problem with our society today is ... they want to point blame. It’s not about placing blame … pointing fingers, getting them to admit there is a problem or not,” said parent Christine Hupfer-Sanden.

Hupfer-Sanden is working with other area parents to put together a group, called A Community for a Positive Tomorrow, focused on fostering social engagement between the students outside of school, with the ultimate goal of opening a free community center for youth.

“We feel there’s a huge lack of social engagement in our children — if we can create opportunities for the kids to be social together in a positive environment … outside of school, they are not going to go back to school (and start bullying again),” Hupfer-Sanden said.

Parents aren’t the only ones being notably proactive in dealing with the problem. Middle School student Caitlyn Mersereau, who also became part of Hupfer-Sanden’s group, has given presentations to classmates on the issue of bullying.

“What really inspired me is that there is a couple kids that have mental issues in our grade, and it really hurt me that kids called them ‘retarded.’ (Their) feelings get hurt and I don’t think they understand (the impact),” Mersereau said.

Merserseau teamed up with fellow student Johannah Mueller for the presentations, and while the two realize they can't expect everyone to get involved — they hope their message has an impact.

“Not everyone will take part in the helping of the situation, but we need everyone to succeed in finding a solution,” Merserseau said. “(Johannah and I) feel that the problem will never be solved and that we really need to dig very deep in to this problem because everyone can make new friends and be who they want to be. … We want to get the point (across) to people that bullying isn’t a joke.”

That’s important, Merserseau said, because she believes a lot of students doing bullying actually think the name calling and the physical violence is funny.

$$andSense February 17, 2012 at 03:33 PM
What planet are you on? I grew up in the 60’s and there were fights all the time in school. Bullying has been around forever before there was civilized society. I had my own brushes where I had to beat the snot out of someone that just didn’t get the message of leave me alone, including a knife wielding thug trying to mug me as an adult. I wasn’t raised to be aggressive, but to stand up for myself and what I was taught were personal boundaries. There were NEVER cops involved. I wish I had the more dignified training my son has acquired that doesn’t necessarily require blood letting, but my methods have worked too. So am I a Neanderthal? Should cops replace parenting and educators? Perhaps put all kids on mind control drugs that stymies their impulses? And BTW, my son does not attend the school in the story. If a teacher or principal would discipline my child for defending themselves, then there should be immediate disciplinary actions against that individual. What kind of wimpy society are you trying to create?
Greg Huegerich February 17, 2012 at 07:47 PM
You may have misread something there. If there's any kind of a fight, punches thrown, etc, the school refers it to the police. I don't think thats about anyone trying to alter society, that's just how things work now, for better or for worse. In fact, there's another article on this site right now about the school and police department re-instating a liason officer. The physical side of bullying is an issue, no doubt about it, but there are other aspects to bullying too, things that tend to show themselves long before physcial problems happen. It just so happens that a fight is what wound up on tape and eventually television. If the emphasis is to be on thwarting the physical aspect of bullying, then I'd suggest there's most of the bullying problems would be missed. Happily, I don't think that's the direction the school is headed in. However, there is still a very real perception issue right now around the district, and TJ in particular, something that will likely only be overcome with better issue tracking and reporting (of events that fall well short of physical violence).
$$andSense February 18, 2012 at 06:42 PM
You have got to be kidding me. This stuff happens in every school. Where have you been all your life? Do you have kids? Because some parent allowed their kid to take a recording device to school makes a difference? Your "let's talk about this " and “let's put a cop in every school” makes me sick. Sorry for passing judgement but your cross gender name belies that you are female. This isn’t California, unless that is where you hail from. Apparently, I come from a damaged generation. I don’t want to be part of yours. Meanwhile, my son will continue to protect himself from bullies. Do you think he should be harassed by the cops and arrested too should someone bully him? Disgusting.
C. Sanders February 19, 2012 at 06:36 PM
Bullying exists in both physical and psychological forms. My kids are trained to immediately report any psychological bullying to us, and we are very aggressive to report the incident to the school whether it affects our child or not. If any of our children should find themselves the intended victim of a physical altercation or event, they are trained to defend themselves and engage the bully/attacker with maximum violence to quickly end the event and then get away as soon as possible. Fortunately, they have not been required to use their training.
Patricia Layton April 18, 2012 at 02:49 PM
My child is bullied in the Port Washington School District. Because it is not physical, I suppose, is why emails to the vice principal, the principal and the superintendent went UNANSWERED. When you tell your child to report it to the teachers when it occurs, does it? No. The child knows tattling makes it worse because the school is LAX in discipline. ONE TEACHER keeps us at Thomas Jefferson Middle School..Marcia Trotchie. She is the only teacher who has actively WORKED to keep her students from being bullied IN ANY FORM. Making it difficult for her is the fact that she is the Special Education teacher. If the schools took a tougher stance..if they simply said any PROVEN bullying is a day's suspension, parents would take notice as they make arrangements for their child to be at home. Maybe they will actually PUNISH them in a manner in which they will learn..take them somewhere where they learn tolerance, make them write a 500 word report on bullying...SOMETHING. Too many parents don't even know their child is a bully. This district needs to crack down not only on the large scale bullying, but the smaller scale...the mental damage being done to some our children is unconscionable!

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