By Angela H. Hill
Bullying: no locality or school is immune to the possibility that whenever a group of children is gathered, a mean-spirited pecking order could develop.
How do Patrick County schools handle the issue? That varies by case, but school officials emphasize that procedures are in place to address bullying.
One consideration in addressing bullying is to have students and parents understand the definition of bullying, which is laid out in the school system’s Standards of Student Conduct code.
“Prohibited conduct includes, but is not limited to, physical, verbal, or written intimidation, taunting, name-calling, and insults and any combination of prohibited activities,” the standards state.
“‘Bullying’ means any aggressive and unwanted behavior that is intended to harm, intimidate, or humiliate the victim; involves a real or perceived power imbalance between the aggressor or aggressors and victim; and is repeated over time or causes severe emotional trauma.
“‘Bullying’ does not include ordinary teasing, horseplay, argument or peer conflict,” the passage concludes. Ben Coulter, guidance counselor for both Woolwine and Blue Ridge elementary schools, added that bullying involves more than a one-time incident.
Another component to dealing with bullying is helping students feel safe to report problems.
Trey Cox, principal at Patrick County High School, said that PCHS students have options.
“No one here wants a kid to feel like he can’t come to school,” Cox continued.”We can’t teach you if you’re not here. We do everything within our means to make the kid feel comfortable. There are 100 people they can go to — bus driver, coach, I don’t care who they go to — but we can’t help if we don’t know.”
In particular, guidance counselors focus on bullying prevention and resolution.
“Our guidance counselors are our first go-to people, and they work closely with our students to make sure they always have an open line of communication,” said Cyndi Williams, assistant superintendent of instruction for Patrick County Schools.
“That’s really important — mediating between students — because our goal is to help them work out their issues and conflicts. It’s a real-life skill,” Williams continued.
Students not reporting bullying is more common during the teen years, explained Cox. “It can be tougher in high school to get it out of the kid … I wish students would have more self-efficacy, and go home and tell mom and dad, but we may not find out until a day later or a week later.”
Plus, students at Woolwine and Blue Ridge elementary schools can report problems through a form at https://we.patrick.k12.va.us/. Putting names on the form is optional.
Coulter said that once he’s aware of the problem, there are several ways to address it.
Physical aggression, while rare, is always reported directly to school administration, he said. The other kind of bullying is “relational aggression,” Coulter said. “If a student comes to me and it’s strictly calling names or he’s spreading rumors, I get the students involved, I talk to them … but I let the student chose whether to be part of peer counseling.
“If that does not work — and sometimes it doesn’t — then I pass it on to administration.”
All schools also have programs to help students learn about bullying. Cox said PCHS works with both the Patrick County Sheriff’s Office and Piedmont Community Services to establish protocol.
Coulter — along with counselors for the other elementary schools — visits classrooms for what he calls Bullying Lessons.
Coulter encourages students to call out the bully when possible — and he encourages students who witness bullying to speak out. “Tell them to stop and say, ‘That’s mean!” Say it loud if need be because it draws attention. Teachers can see something is going on, and bullies don’t want attention.”
Cox said he hears about a lot of students sticking up for others at PCHS. “We have special kids who have good hearts and have good consciences, and they won’t let bullying occur. They won’t be passive and watch it happen. I don’t know how much it happens at other schools, but here in Patrick County I see students willing to take a stand and come forward and let us know,” Cox said.
What about support for the bully? Coulter said he explains to victims that the bully is also a child who’s hurting. “I feel like the bully a lot of times is struggling and does have problems — maybe more than what the victim is experiencing.”
Cox said he’s also careful to recognize that children who bully are still children. “We talk about inappropriateness of behavior,” Cox said. “I don’t believe in labels. You are 15 years old. That’s why we don’t let them vote or drive cars.”
Plus, bullying will be addressed no matter where it occurs, school personnel say. Buses are equipped with multiple cameras, and video can be reviewed anytime by school resource officers.
Cox also has a close eye on cyberbullying, having undergone extensive training through the nationwide Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.
“That’s the issue we see more than anything,” Cox said. “Anybody is big behind the keyboard … but if it’s something that impedes the educational process, that starts fights, starts rumors, or does anything that keeps a child from learning, we’re going to address it.”