By Claire Walla
Vanessa Leggard began to notice her daughter’s behavior gradually changing at the end of last year, the tail end of sixth grade.
“She had a really short fuse,” Leggard explained. “And I began to notice that, for about two months, she wasn’t invited anywhere and she was by herself on the weekends.”
Leggard said it was odd because her daughter is typically very spontaneous and outgoing. After some coaxing, Leggard was able to get her daughter to talk about the issue.
That’s when she realized her daughter was being bullied at school.
Her daughter’s friends would talk in front of her in the cafeteria, but would not invite her into the conversation, Leggard explained. Or they would post a photo album on Facebook titled “my friends” but not include certain girls.
“In their world, that’s so huge,” Leggard added. When a child is bullied, she continued, “It dominates everything. And before you know it, they can’t think about anything else — they can’t do anything.”
After delving into the issue last year, Leggard reached out to about 15 middle school parents and learned that almost every one of them admitted that their child had been affected by bullying in some way. So, as she announced at a school board meeting last month, she has decided to tackle the issue in a significant way this school year.
Leggard and other parents have recently organized to urge administrators to implement more interactive anti-bullying programs in the coming school year in an effort to have students themselves better understand where the problems originate.
“I’m convinced that the kids don’t understand what bullying is,” she continued. “And that’s a problem.”
Sag Harbor School District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto said bullying is often addressed by teachers and administrators as an issue of tolerance, which is a topic embedded in every teacher’s yearlong curriculum.
“I don’t even think [teachers] talk about it in the context of bullying,” he said. “Teachers confront inappropriate behavior; and there are punitive consequences, as well.”
There are “a dozen or so” incidences that get reported and dealt with each year, Dr. Gratto added, and there are a number of steps the district takes to prevent problems from occurring, including administering programs on tolerance and setting up one-on-one discussions between students and teachers and guidance counselors.
Dr. Gratto admitted it’s an issue that is typically more prevalent at the middle school level, which is why Pierson Middle School Assistant Principal Barbara Beckermus is invested in developing tactics to prevent bullying. In fact, when she first came to Pierson five years ago, Beckermus said there was little in place that addressed anti-bullying tactics directly.
She has since asked three teachers each year to be “team leaders” — there to guide faculty and students on issues involving bullying — for every grade level in the middle school and has been more proactive in coaching teachers to address inappropriate social behaviors both in and out of the classroom. This year, Beckermus added she is currently in the process of developing programs on specific types of bullying, addressing issues like racism and “relational aggression,” which is mostly seen among girls.
“It’s become a little more difficult [to prevent bullying] because of the Internet and technology,” Beckermus added. “The minute students walk out of the classroom with their smartphones, it’s no longer under our control. In the past, kids could at least go home and breathe a sigh of relief.”
“I think parents really want to do something about [cyber-bullying],” she added. “But they didn’t go through it themselves, so they don’t really understand it.”
As Sag Harbor School Board President Mary Anne Miller sees it, the degree to which students at Pierson Middle School are bullied “is somewhat normal.” She clarified, “While I don’t believe bullying is normal, it’s something that’s existed for some time in society and I think [relational aggression at Pierson] is nothing out of the ordinary for kids this age.”
The real culprit when it comes down to it is technology, according to Miller.
“I don’t think parents are as engaged and aware of these technologies as they should be,” she said. “Situations will escalate in the evening and then kids come to school after these horrible incidents online … How does the school police that?”
Combating bullying largely comes down to the parents, according to Miller.
“I just feel like unsupervised electronic use is a big part of the problem,” she said.
Beckermus continued to explain that the school has held workshops for parents through the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), but few parents ever show up.
“I guess there really could be more of that,” she added, referring to parent involvement. “It’s like that old adage, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ It really does. When everyone does something [to fix a problem], that problem has to decrease.”
While Leggard believes the school should be doing more to actively make students aware of the different types of behaviors that can be considered bullying, she agrees that parents play an important role in preventing such behavior. (She added that she has even interacted with parents who have refused to address instances of bullying related to their child.)
Leggard said she recognizes that “relational aggression” is nothing new, and that bullying is a common developmental phase for some junior high school students.
“Yes, it will blow over and it’s not the end of the world,” she noted.
“I foresee issues for this seventh grade class,” Leggard told the Sag Harbor school board at a meeting last month. ”If the school chooses not to do anything, I’m still going to do something off school grounds,” she added. Leggard said she will continue to contact parents to address anti-bullying techniques.
While Leggard has been assured by Pierson administrators that the school has hired a new middle school guidance counselor this year, she said the school’s efforts to combat these problems remain to be seen. She concluded, “I think kids are still confused with what bullying really is.”