Despite national anti-bullying campaigns endorsed by international celebrities, bullying remains a pressing issue for youth in America. Most bullying happens in Middle School although 35 percent of boys and 25 percent of girls age 6-9 reported being physically bullied at school, according to the government website stopbullying.org. And 70 percent of school staff, as well as youth, witnessed bullying at some point in their schools.
At Mammoth Elementary School (MES), Principal Rosanne Lampariello said bullying is not a prevalent issue among this age group and School Resource Officer Andy Lehr with the Mammoth Lakes Police Department says he mostly deals with issues at the Middle and High Schools.
Most of the teasing that happens at the school is part of the “normal pecking order with kids” that has been “happening since the beginning of time,” Lehr said. “Where there’s actual bullying going on, I’m not sure it’s a big problem.”
However, for mother Katharine Biwott, bullying at MES is a large issue. “He’s a pretty outgoing kid but he’s not into physical play,” Katharine said of her eight-year-old son in second grade. “The first week [of school] he was coming home from school saying he had been hurt on the playground … that kids were waiting for him and hurting him.”
Katharine and her husband, Shadrack, were surprised, given their son hadn’t had any previous bullying incidences at past schools. They moved to Mammoth from Folsom last summer in order for Shadrack, a professional runner, to train with the Mammoth Track Club.
Over the course of the year, there have been six different violent incidences perpetrated against Katharine’s son. He was hit when he wouldn’t share food, he was kicked in the classroom in front of a teacher and at one point he was even choked.
“He got his neck rung so hard that he had bruises,” Katharine said. “He’s of African decent and his skin is pretty dark so he doesn’t bruise easily.”
Katharine’s son told her he talked to the principal after each incident but “the very same kids that hurt him would be at school the next day,” she said, although there were efforts to keep the boys separate. “He feels like adults aren’t listening to him. I put a lot of trust in the school saying they are handling it, but then it keeps happening.”
“Our previous schools had a zero tolerance policy,” she continued. “That meant that if you threaten somebody or are violent with somebody you are suspended or expelled depending on the level of violence.”
Principal Lampariello said MES does not have a written zero tolerance policy but rather, “We look at everything on a case by case basis.” For disciplinary actions regarding bullying, Lampariello refers to the suspension and expulsion matrix provided by the California Office of Education.
“The matrix keeps us fair and consistent…We have to abide by the laws set up by the state of California,” she said. “The state is moving in the direction of alternatives to suspension before moving into a more severe discipline.”
MES also uses the Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) framework “to set expectations for behavior. We focus on the positive because the more we work on the positive, we’re hoping the negative is diminished or eliminated,” Lampariello said.
The latest incident involving Katharine’s son occurred in March. Another second-grade student found a note in the bathroom that talked about pointing a gun at Katharine’s son and pulling the trigger. After that, her son was afraid to go to school. He told his mom “I don’t know who to look out for on the playground and I don’t know who might have a gun,” she said.
He stayed home for more than three weeks doing independent study. “This is a kid wanted to go to school. Every day he would get up early, get dressed, with a smile on his face, excited to go,” Katharine said. “It broke our hearts that he didn’t want to be there.”
After her son returned to school, Katharine stopped by at recess to drop off his lunch. She walked onto the playground and “there’s that kid waiting for him at the bottom of the slide. His defense at this point pretty much is to run,” she said. “It seems like there aren’t enough resources to really enforce this kind of stuff.”
The school eventually figured out who wrote the note and the child was suspended. School Resource Officer Andy Lehr with the MLPD was also brought in to investigate the possibility of a hate crime. “He was definitely bullied but I couldn’t prove race [was an issue],” Lehr said. The situation involving Katharine’s son was “handled appropriately” with a full investigation, he continued.
However, he did say that this particular incident is changing training for teachers, aides and students. “It’s a training issue,” he said. “The kids need to know that if they’re getting picked on they need to tell an adult. And the adult needs to pass it up the chain.”
“When this incident happened, we did think about what else could we do,” Lampariello admitted. “There were some gaps at the school with the aides out on the playground. We came up with a plan to break up the aides and look at some of the areas that aren’t well viewed and make sure that kids aren’t getting trapped.”
She also held behavior assemblies with each grade level “reminding all the kids what appropriate behavior is and isn’t. And that they need to tell an adult if something happens,” she said.
“But if he runs to the principal it’s probably not going to help him with playground politics,” Katharine said. “The kids that tell people they are being bullied, they fear that there will be revenge.”
“It’s a terrible situation,” she continued. “The principal and the teachers really want the kids to be safe but how can you prevent these incidences? They can only punish behavior after the fact.”
Northstar Counseling Manager Sheryl Greer said the key to preventing further bullying is getting parents involved and treating family units as a whole. “The counseling is all very individualized. It’s usually a manifestation of something far different, something else that’s going on in their lives,” she said.
But perhaps the best prevention of bullying is rewarding good behavior and giving positive feedback at the schools. “Sometimes all these kids need is a little bit of attention … make them feel valuable,” she said. Northstar also runs peer leadership groups at the Round Valley School discussing topics such as how to share and how to be a good friend with kids who have demonstrated bullying behavior in the past.
In Greer’s estimation, the “schools are coming down a lot harder on bullying.” Although she admitted, “adult supervision is thinner in the lunchroom and on the playground [and] they can’t catch all of it,” she said.
“There’s a difference between being scared and having your feelings hurt. Your perception of being bullied is based on you,” Greer said. Regardless of perception, Greer said physical altercations “go beyond teasing and into bullying. If there is a physically violent threat that is definitely something to be taken seriously.”
Although Northstar does see some kids who bully others, they mostly counsel kids who are the ones being bullied. Greer said that kids who are bullied have the tendency to fall into depression or anxiety. “We try and help them identify the things that trigger them, then give them tools how to keep themselves safe,” she said.
Katharine said her son no longer looks forward to school, “dragging his feet” when he has to go. “He changed a lot this year. He became really withdrawn, he wouldn’t eat dinner and he wouldn’t sleep at night, pacing around the house,” Katharine said. “I didn’t realize how bad it had gotten until I took him out and allowed him to do independent study.”
Superintendent Lois Klein reiterated Lehr and Lampariello’s perspective that the incidences with Katharine’s son were isolated and do not point towards a broader bullying problem at MES.
“Bullying is a problem in our society, nationwide. It is no more a problem at school than in our society,” she said. “We deal with children and children are human beings. They make mistakes but the school works very hard at teaching appropriate behavior. When something happens the principal takes it seriously and investigates it thoroughly.
Lampariello said MES is by far “the least problematic in terms of behavior and it’s the best in terms of parent support and parent awareness of what’s going on,” than other schools she’s worked at in Los Angeles and New York City. “We’ve got a number of very impulsive kids. But I would say 99 percent of the incidences we have here at school are impulse and emotion rather than bullying. They are not done with mal intent.”
“There have been a couple of isolated incidences where things have slipped through the cracks,” Lehr concluded. “But I think they are very isolated and I believe the problem has been handled.”
Katharine’s conclusion: “We just don’t know what to think.”