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The battle against bullying

“I wish you would just help us all out by dying.”

That’s the end of a lengthy Snapchat message allegedly sent by two Beatrice Middle School students to a former BMS student who now lives 280 miles away in Marshalltown, Iowa.

The rise of cell phones and new technology at our fingertips has launched today's youth into a brave new world when it comes to communication, but the apps on those phones and devices have also made bullying all the more efficient.

Pat Dugan’s family moved to Marshalltown for this school year when he took on a new position at work. For almost two years prior to the move, he said one of his daughters had problems with bullies in school, and she suffered from severe anxiety because of it.

A decade ago, moving several hours away would have meant the beginning of a new chapter, but now, thanks to technology, past conflicts can bubble to the surface when least expected.

Dugan’s daughter received a message over Snapchat last week that called her "pathetic" and "useless" and encouraged her to kill herself.  

She had an anxiety attack at school, Dugan said, and he made the trip back to Beatrice this week to discuss it with Beatrice Middle School staff and law enforcement.

“To send something that vile to someone that's no longer in your life, you sit there as a parent and say, 'why,'” Dugan said.

So, what can you do when there’s a digital conflict going on that crosses state lines?

Dugan said it’s not like the old days when you could knock on a parent’s door and hash things out. It’s a different world that kids are living in today, and parents are struggling to keep up.

School officials are also struggling, said Beatrice Middle School Principal John Jarosh. For privacy reasons, the school couldn’t legally comment on Dugan’s daughter, but Jarosh did say that technology makes it easier for kids to be mean to each other without necessarily having to face the consequences.

“It's difficult,” Jarosh said. “Kids are smart. If they want to pick on someone, they can be pretty smart about it.”

BMS counselor Angie Vogel said that any time a student reports bullying at the school, it is investigated.

They check in with the students involved, she said, and try to find witnesses. Even if there are corroborating witnesses, it can be hard to prove. If it’s on a phone, it can be easier. However, with apps like Snapchat, which permanently deletes photos and messages after they are seen, bullying can be more difficult to prove.

Getting to the root of what’s actually happening can be a challenge as well, Vogel said. Is it bullying, or is it a conflict between two parties? Bullying, she said, is one-sided. It’s mean on purpose and it happens more than once.

“Generally, what I find in the middle school is it's not bullying, it's a conflict,” Vogel said. “Where you've done something mean and I've done something mean in return, and now we're in an argument.”

Vogel said the best way to figure out what’s happening is to get both parties in a room together and have them talk through it.

Sometimes that doesn’t work, though. Sometimes kids don’t want to be in the same room together, and sometimes it’s just an uncomfortable situation. In those cases, the school teaches kindness, empathy and making good decisions.

But bullying itself is tricky, said BMS Assistant Principal Pam Henning.

“There's usually some kind of underlying issue for someone to be a bully,” Henning said. “There's not something going well in their life and they're getting power by control in other ways, so we look for what's causing that person to do those kinds of things.”

If a bully is harassing one person, she said, chances are he or she is probably bullying others. Middle school is a tough time for everyone, bullies included.

If things get to a point where threats are made or saying mean things starts crossing the line into dangerous territory, that’s when a school resource officer like Tim Price gets involved. Price is an officer with the Beatrice Police Department, and a resource for the middle school, especially when it comes to conflict resolution.

“With school resource officers, we've got a triad effect,” Price said. “The first thing we do is kind of an informal counselor. The second thing we do is an informal teacher. The third thing we do is law enforcement.”

Unless an incident happens on school grounds, there’s not really reason for suspension or other action, legal or disciplinary, Henning said.

If someone sent something on a smartphone or over one of the school’s Chromebooks, they have ways of finding out when it was sent. Otherwise, it’s not often that it rises to the severity of an actionable offence.

“The touchy part is when it happens off school grounds,” Jarosh said. “If that happens, we have to show it made a significant disruption in the school day. Did it disrupt school? How many people did it disrupt? Was it a significant disruption?”

That might not be a satisfying answer, but it’s what they have to work with at the moment, Jarosh said.

The vast majority of students want a positive experience at school, he said, and schools would much rather work with students toward a resolution rather than simply handing out punishments.

Every situation is different, Jarosh said. Kids in middle school are just starting to figure out who they are, what their interests are and where they fit in.

Things that happen in middle school aren’t going to be the things that stick with you for your entire life, Vogel said. It’s about finding a solution that makes school a comfortable place for everyone. Mediation can help that.

“How can we move forward at this point,” Vogel said. “We can't change the past, but how can we move forward and forgive and move on? Because to continue to just live in that hurt isn't good for anybody.”

Dugan said his whole family is indeed living in that hurt.

He urges parents to keep track of what their kids are doing on their phones and computers. For his part, he’s taken away Facebook and Snapchat from all of his children after his daughter's latest brush with bullying. 

"They don't like it and its not fair to them," Dugan admitted. "But I'm their father and I have to do whatever I can to protect them."

It’s been hard to deal with, he said, and he’s not altogether satisfied with the outcome. Even if punishments or consequences were handed down, Jarosh said, they legally can’t tell parents what they were and can’t even tell them what other parties might have been involved.

“I'm not a big crier,” Dugan said. “I was raised by a stern Irish Catholic dad, but I'm sitting there ... and I'm reading this and just tears. Because you just feel for your kid so much.”

Bullying: What every parent should know

Warning signs for bullying

There are many warning signs that may indicate that someone is affected by bullying—either being bullied or bullying others. Recognizing the warning signs is an important first step in taking action against bullying. Not all children who are bullied or are bullying others ask for help.

It is important to talk with children who show signs of being bullied or bullying others. These warning signs can also point to other issues or problems, such as depression or substance abuse. Talking to the child can help identify the root of the problem.

Signs a child is being bullied

Look for changes in the child. However, be aware that not all children who are bullied exhibit warning signs.

Some signs that may point to a bullying problem are:

  • Unexplainable injuries;
  • Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics or jewelry;
  • Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness
  • Changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating. Kids may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch;
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares;
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork or not wanting to go to school;
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations;
  • Feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem;
  • Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, self harm or talking about suicide.

If you know someone in serious distress or danger, don’t ignore the problem. Get help right away.

Why don't kids ask for help?

Statistics from the 2012 Indicators of School Crime and Safety show that an adult was notified in less than half (40 percent) of bullying incidents. Kids might not tell adults for many reasons, including:

  • Bullying can make a child feel helpless. Kids may want to handle it on their own to feel in control again. They may fear being seen as weak or a tattletale;
  • Kids may fear backlash from the kid who bullied them;
  • Bullying can be a humiliating experience. Kids may not want adults to know what is being said about them, whether true or false. They may also fear that adults will judge them or punish them for being weak;
  • Kids who are bullied may already feel socially isolated. They may feel like no one cares or could understand;
  • Kids may fear being rejected by their peers. Friends can help protect kids from bullying, and kids can fear losing this support.

How to support children who are bullied

Offer support to a bullied child:

  • Listen and focus on the child. Learn what’s been going on and show you want to help;
  • Assure the child that bullying is not their fault;
  • Know that kids who are bullied may struggle with talking about it. Consider referring them to a school counselor, psychologist or other mental health service;
  • Give advice about what to do. This may involve role-playing and thinking through how the child might react if the bullying occurs again;
  • Work together to resolve the situation and protect the bullied child. The child, parents and school or organization may all have valuable input. It may help to ask the child being bullied what can be done to make him or her feel safe. Remember that changes to routine should be minimized;
  • Develop a game plan. Maintain open communication between schools, organizations and parents. Discuss the steps that are taken and the limitations around what can be done based on policies and laws. Remember, the law does not allow school personnel to discuss discipline, consequences or services given to other children;
  • Be persistent. Bullying may not end overnight. Commit to making it stop and consistently support the bullied child.

Avoid these mistakes:

  • Never tell the child to ignore the bullying;
  • Do not blame the child for being bullied. Even if he or she provoked the bullying, no one deserves to be bullied;
  • Do not tell the child to physically fight back against the bully. It could get your child hurt, suspended or expelled;
  • Parents should resist the urge to contact the other parents involved. It may make matters worse. School or other officials can act as mediators between parents;
  • Follow-up. Show a commitment to making the bullying stop. Because bullying is behavior that repeats or has the potential to be repeated, it takes consistent effort to ensure that it stops.

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Nielsen named assistant superintendent

The Beatrice Public Schools Board of Education voted unanimously to create and fill a new position of assistant superintendent at its regular meeting Monday evening.

Jackie Nielsen,  currently serving as director of curriculum for BPS, was approved by the board to become the district’s assistant superintendent beginning in the 2018-2019 school year.

She will be joining the district’s recently-approved superintendent, Jason Alexander, who will also begin at the start of the next school year.

The change is part of a central office restructuring, according to current superintendent, Pat Nauroth. With the restructuring, the district will see its current four-person team go down to just three people. The change will still provide oversight for both the district and its programs, Nauroth said, and it will also save finances.

The newly-created position of assistant superintendent will oversee curriculum instruction and assessment, personnel, budget and other areas, Nauroth said, and Nielsen was the obvious choice.

“Based on her skills, background and ability, I think she is a logical choice to move into that,” Nauroth said. “Based on mainly a lot of things, but the fact that the assistant superintendent position will focus a lot of their time on curriculum and instruction and assessment, which is one her of many strengths.”

The Board of Education also approved administrator salaries for the next school year, including Nielsen, who will be paid $135,851 for her role, in addition to $24,183 in fringe benefits, for a total of $160,034. Nauroth said those wages and benefits are comparable for similar positions.

"I'm excited for Jason Alexander to be here," Nielsen said Tuesday. "I think he and I complement each other. As I look at both our personalities, we are outgoing, we are forward thinking. We're pretty driven and high energy. And I'm excited to keep the district moving forward with his help, his guidance and his support."

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Beatrice preschool to start earlier next year

The Beatrice Public Schools Board of Education approved a change to the calendar for the upcoming school year.

At Monday night’s meeting, the board unanimously approved changes that will only affect preschool classes for the 2018-2019 school year. In order to get preschool classes to meet the minimum requirement of 450 hours of instructional time, preschool students will be starting class on a different date than the rest of the district.

Originally, to make up for about six days of instructional time that the preschool needed, Superintendent Pat Nauroth said they had planned to pick six Wednesdays—a day that preschool classes do not typically meet—to have students attend class. Missy Timmerman, director of early childhood development, met with staff at the preschool to come up with another plan.

To add in the six instructional days, Nauroth said, the preschool will move its start date up to Aug. 16 from Aug. 21, which will gain three days. In January, preschool students will return from winter break on Jan. 10 instead of January 14, which will add another two days. Then, on Feb. 18 of 2019, which is a scheduled professional development day that students in kindergarten through 12th grade will have off, the preschool will be in session.

“Preschool takes Wednesdays off and they do a lot of professional development,” Nauroth said. “I know Ms. Timmerman met with Jackie Nielsen, they talked through that and felt that that would be easy enough to use that day for a school day, rather than a professional development, they would make that up.”

Nauroth said that in order to add the days back in August and January, preschool staff are trying to find a way to get in their necessary home visits and structure their time a little differently.

“To me, this is the best way to do that,” Nauroth said. “It really does not impact K-12 and I think it's a good compromise to get the days in for preschool.”