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Schools square off with bullies

Taunting reportedly an ongoing issue at Acton school

Posted: October 22, 2008 10:01 p.m.
Updated: December 24, 2008 5:00 a.m.
 

Bullying happens in the classroom, on the playground and online.

It poisons the learning process, discourages students from attending school and can even drive people to commit suicide, a local school official said Wednesday.

The California Student Survey showed 31 percent of 11th-grade students were victims of harassment during a 12-month period in 2005 and 2006, according to the California Attorney General's Office Web site.

But incidents of bullying are more numerous, said Chuck Nichols, a California Department of Education official.

"That is the closest number we have," Nichols said of the harassment figures. "The survey asked kids about harassment, which doesn't include all types of bullying, and any real inclusive bullying number is higher."

Schools in California aren't required to record bullying incidents, just disciplinary actions like suspension and expulsion, he said.

In the wake of the suicide of Jeremiah Lasater, a 14-year-old freshman who shot himself in the head in a Vasquez High School bathroom Monday, state officials are cautious not to jump to conclusions, Nichols said.

On Tuesday, former special-education teacher Michael Daly said Lasater was tormented during middle school.

"We don't want to react and say that bullying definitely had something to do with the student's death because we don't know," he said.

Acton-Agua Dulce School District officials touted the district's zero-tolerance policy toward bullying and denied reports that Lasater was teased by bullies the day of the event.

But Tia Torres paints a different picture of Vasquez High, one where bullying is an everyday occurrence.
"The problem just kept getting worse," Torres said about the taunting and teasing her kids experienced at Vasquez. Bullies hurled gum at her daughter's hair and made sexually explicit remarks, Torres said.

Torres said her other daughter became the target of bullies for sticking up for a special-education student.
"She told the girl not to let the other kids humiliate her. The kids were telling this poor girl to pull up her dress and tried to pressure her into sexual acts," Torres said. "My daughter tried to defend the girl and the bullies turned on her."

Torres asked school officials to bring in the bullies' parents for a conference. Torres alleges school officials refused and told her that school staff would handle the problem.

"Things never got better," Torres said. She eventually pulled all four of her kids out of the district.

School administrators are paralyzed when it comes to dealing with bullies, Nichols said.

"They just tell the kids not do it," he said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Assembly Bill 86 on Sept. 30.

"It gives schools the authority to suspend kids for bullying, which they couldn't do before," Nichols said. The legislation takes effect Jan. 1, 2009.

Two days after Lasater killed himself, talk of bullies echoed down the halls of William S. Hart Union High School District schools.

"We reminded all staff that the resources are here and to look out for bullies and the kids they victimize," said Greg Lee, Hart's director of diversity.

Lee and other administrators spent Tuesday morning huddled up to talk about bullying.

"It's not a suicide issue, it's a bullying issue," Lee said about Lasater's suicide.

Bullies can push people to suicide and/or drug use, disrupt learning and discourage students from attending school, he said.

Hart battles bullying with programs designed to pull together the popular and less popular kids, Lee said.
"We want to identify the marginal students. These are the kids that are invisible on campus. They are hiding in plain sight," Lee said.

When student conflicts arise, Hart has several ways to address the problem.

"We try to employ peer mediation when we can," Lee said. Students mediate conflicts that aren't violent and where the threat of violence has not been made, he said.

The program allows students to create their own culture in which bullying and violence are unacceptable, Lee said.

Hart is staffed with three counselors at each junior high school, five at the high school and 15 school psychologists in the district, Lee said.

Trinity Classical Academy, a Newhall private Christian school, takes an alternative tack to bullying and conflict resolution.

"We have issues on the playground, but we get to deal with it (by) asking what the Gospel says," said Liz Caddow, head of the school.

The school uses a mix of secular intervention - in which parents, faculty and children sort out issues - and Scripture, she said.

"You need to ask for forgiveness, we tell the children," Caddow said.

Trinity serves 230 students from kindergarten through ninth grade. Fifty staff and faculty members on campus help prevent problems, she said.

"We are a small school with plenty of staff and dedicated parents," Caddow said. She understands that her school, with its almost 4-to-1 student-to-staff ratio, is not the norm.

Caddow taught at La Mesa Junior High School and said she understands the challenges public schools face.
"There are a lot of students and a lot of demands," she said.

Calls made to the Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District and to Vasquez High School were not returned.

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