POMONA, Calif. – Last year, in South Hadley, Mass., the suicide of a 15-year-old Irish immigrant, Phoebe Prince, led the State of Massachusetts to enact one of the toughest anti-bullying laws in the United States. It also prompted concern nationally, such as in California, where the state recently strengthened its anti-bullying laws.
Prince hanged herself after enduring months of harassment via text messages, disparaging posts on Facebook and physical attacks at South Hadley High.
The Massachusetts law bans bullying on all school grounds, buses and activities, and it mandates school officials to investigate that every instance of bullying and report it to the parents of the students involved.
California Ethnic Students Bullied
In California, the problem of bullying is just as serious. According to the California Healthy Kids Survey conducted by the California Department of Education, between 2006 and 2008, eight percent of students of color in California have experienced bullying or harassment because of their race or national origin.
Also, nine percent of African American youth reported being bullied four times or more.
The California legislature amended its anti-bullying law in July. Under Assembly Bill 746, school administrators can suspend or recommend students for expulsion, who use social networks to cyber-bully others.
The bill also encourages school districts to implement strategies that will reduce school crime and violence, including bullying through social networking sites.
Earlier this year, the Pomona Unified School District (PUSD) in Southern California implemented the Peace Project and Art Contest as one strategy educators hoped would affect student behavior.
The anti-bullying, anti-violence project was spearheaded by PUSD Superintendent Richard Martinez’s Faith-based Roundtable. The group includes community stakeholders largely consisting of faith leaders, such as Nancy Matarita, community resources director at First Baptist Church of Pomona, who is one of the main coordinators of the project. She said the goal of the project was to teach youth about setting personal boundaries of what behaviors are acceptable and what are not, and how to take responsibility for maintaining those limits.
“I believe the project team learned that we all value good values,” said Matarita who recalled that she, her children and other families members had been bullied in school, too.
Harassment Common in Pomona
According to the California Healthy Kids Survey, bullying and harassment were rather common on school property in Pomona schools. During the 2008-2009 school year, one quarter of seventh graders said they have been bullied or harassed at least once within one of the five categories of hate-crimes: Race, Ethnicity or National Origin; Religion; Gender; Sexual Orientation; or Physical/Mental Disability.
In addition, one in four seventh graders said they were afraid of being beaten up. Students in grades nine and 11 reported similar results.
The survey also indicates that students with a low level of connectedness to school, such as those who don’t feel treated fairly, close to people or safe at school, consistently experienced more bullying or harassments there.
“There’s a huge need for this type of collaboration with the schools,” said Jan Chase, minister at Unity Church of Pomona. One of the participating faith leaders involved with the project, she said, “I want the Pomona Valley to be a [national] model for interfaith harmony and peace.”
The project’s art contest was open to students from grades three through 12 to promote positive behavior. There were also a series of assemblies on anti-bullying for third-graders. These programs included videos and live demonstrations on how to recognize bullying, keep from being bullied and what to do if a friend is being bullied.
The art contest required students to illustrate one of 12 messages and submit a three-dimensional art piece depicting a positive behavior over a negative one. Categories ranged from messages opposed to smoking, gambling or cheating, to “Bullying is not okay – Kindness is so much better” or “Ditching school or dropping out is not okay – Listening is so much better.”
“Bullying someone can really hurt your reputation,” said ninth grader Cathery Cardenas, of Gary High School. Her poster won in the category encouraging joining a club rather than a gang.
“If you want to do something different, it may be harder for you if people find out that you were once a bully,” said Cardenas, who has also been the victim of bullying.
The contest organizers received more than 300 art entries from Pomona Unified students and those living in the city enrolled in private, parochial or charter schools.
“It was a fun project,” said Amairani Ramirez, also in the ninth grade at Gary High. Ramirez won with three-dimensional art aimed at promoting healthy living over drug abuse. “Bullying makes people feel unhappy, unsafe,” said Ramirez, who has not experienced bullying.
The winning students’ artwork and message of the Peace Project will be displayed at various venues throughout Pomona. The first stop was the Downtown Pomona Owners’ Association Metro Art Gallery where the art was featured as part of the city’s Second Saturday Artwalk on September 10, and will remain on display through October.
“The project needs to be continued by parents, teachers and other community leaders,” said Chase. “You just can’t give kids one shot at a program like this,” she said in assessing the impact the program will have on student behavior.
That was precisely the goal of the Pomona project, which received widespread community support from teachers, parents, elected officials and even local businesses that helped sponsor an elaborate awards reception for the students.
Project Draws Skepticism
But some expressed skepticism about these kinds of programs.
“There’s a whole variety of school programs that can address bullying. Unfortunately, many of the programs are not very effective,” said Richard Newman, a child psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of California, Riverside, Graduate School of Education.
“It’s not because teachers and school administrators don’t want to address the problem. But there are so many factors that go into bullying,” said Newman.
One of the factors is students find it difficult to approach a teacher with a complaint. Newman, who is researching this problem, explained that young people don’t want to look like a tattletale even if reporting harassment is essential to getting help. They allow themselves to chronically be poked, kicked, teased and threatened.
Newman added that students need to learn how to monitor their safety and know when they should seek help, because there is only so much schools can do.
“It’s very easy to say teachers should be doing more, but that’s difficult to enforce because cyber-bullying mostly takes place at home or walking to school using a hand-held device,” Newman said.
“I think in many cases it’s too much to ask of teachers and school administrators to expect that they are going to be monitoring and policing cyber-space. That’s a space that’s hard for both parents as well as teachers to control,” Newman added.
Andrea Eldridge, CEO of Nerds on Call, a technology firm based in Northern California, believes education at home is equally important. She encourages parents to talk with their children about using the Internet.
She advises parents, “Explain that what they send over the Internet is out there forever. Just because they sent it to one person, doesn’t mean the message won’t be forwarded on to others.”
Sheri Stuart is a freelance writer with Inland Valley News, where she covers education issues. She received a 2011 NAM Education Beat Fellowship for ethnic media journalists on the topic of "What's Working For Kids in Your Community? --Innovations in Underserved Communities.” The fellowship was sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
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