Sunday, March 26, 2006

The High Price Of Schoolyard Bullying

Interesting article in today's Houston Chronicle that discusses one often overlooked aspect of the age-old problem of bullies and bullying in our schools: children who violently strike back at their tormentors. As we think that the topic and message are important, we've reprinted the whole piece in order to prevent its loss in the Chronicle's awkward archival system:
The white prison uniform seems to swallow the slight, 5-foot-3 frame of 19-year-old Jaysen Kettl. He looks like a child compared with the tougher, more street-wise convicts surrounding him.

Kettl, convicted of plotting to kill students and teachers at his school after being bullied, never admits to being afraid at Preston Smith Prison in West Texas. But the bravado is missing from the poem he writes about his Orange County home in East Texas:

"When will I see home? Man, I feel so all alone, I think to myself, 'Why me?' I just wanna go home and see mommy."

Kettl and a sixth-grader from Crosby, who were both ostracized and taunted at school, give rare insights into the thinking of bullied students. Because of these and other area cases, school districts are realizing that teasing and bullying are more than innocent rites of passage in the school yard.

Districts are taking bullying so seriously that many are investing in prevention programs such as a pilot project initiated by the Houston school district this year.

Marlene Snyder, a national training director for a bully prevention program at Clemson University, said, "Bullying is really pure abuse. When you send a child to school, you expect them to be safe, not humiliated, degraded and badgered."

At 16, Kettl was certified to stand trial as an adult and now is serving four years in prison for conspiracy to murder those he accuses of tormenting him at Vidor High School. He wrote his threats in a spiral notebook called his "death book."

The 12-year-old Crosby girl, who never had a friend and repeatedly was called "stinky," according to her classmates, wound up being sent to an alternative school last year for writing a "hit list"of those she wanted to die.

Both the Vidor and Crosby school districts are among at least seven districts in the region and dozens nationally that have experienced threats on their campuses in the past three years.

For example, a "hit list" with the encrypted message "PTK," which meant "people to kill," was confiscated from a student in the Channelview school district two years ago. And, ominous tools for another attack — six carbon dioxide canisters and instructions on how to turn them into explosive devices — were seized from a student in the Spring Branch school district last year.

Within the past month alone, two new investigations have been launched into possible school threats. Both involve allegations that students drew maps, one detailing where to place explosives at Dulles High School in Fort Bend County and another that labeled Channelview High School in Harris County the "new Columbine."

Reason for Massacre:

The massacre at Columbine High School outside Denver on April 20, 1999, was the deadliest school shooting on record. Two teenagers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who dressed in Goth attire and felt like misfits, went on a rampage that left 13 dead and 24 wounded before killing themselves.

School administrators now are wondering why so many threats keep surfacing in America's classrooms and are starting to look into possible causes. In some cases, the exact reasons behind a threat remain nebulous. But other times — such as in the Vidor and Crosby cases — bullying has played a key factor.

What frustrates school administrators is that stunning acts of violence are occurring at a time when a 2006 U.S. Justice Department report found teen crime has been steadily dropping. Juvenile arrests for violent crimes in the past three years are one-third fewer than in 1980, the report said.

But, in another study that looked specifically at school shootings, the agency reported that two-thirds of the student shooters (who remained alive to talk about it) previously had been bullied. "In those cases, the experience of bullying appeared to play a major role in motivating the attacker," the report found.

For instance, a 16-year-old who went on a rampage that left eight dead at a high school in Red Lake, Minn., a year ago fit the profile. School personnel described him as a loner who wore black and routinely was teased.

In November 2003, Kettl concocted a detailed plot to torture and kill at least 20 of his peers, three teachers and an administrator — then commit suicide.

School administrators say they never knew of any physical abuse, only verbal abuse that centered around Kettl's heavy-metal, Goth attire and sexual orientation.

Kettl's mother, Karen, said she does not think of her son as the so-called "mastermind" behind the Vidor murder plot. Rather, she remembers a "sweet and lovable" boy who was so soft-hearted that he could not stand to see his grandfather shoot a possum that had become a nuisance.

He also was bright, participating in the gifted and talented program until the eighth grade. His complaints of being "picked on" began after he left the gifted program.

But he never revealed the full extent to his mother, only occasionally acknowledging that someone had tripped him or called him a name, she said. His schoolwork also began to deteriorate, and he misbehaved in class to the point that he was forced to repeat the ninth grade.

At that time, Kettl said, he asked his mother to move him to a different school. Unfortunately, his mother, a bank teller, said she didn't take him seriously, thinking it was "just more high school drama."

A few months later, in November 2003, authorities received a tip that Kettl was trying to obtain a gun, and the plot was uncovered. Authorities confiscated a knife, chains and a hammer from his backpack.

Kettl remembers how he once yearned to be a part of the crowd he later plotted to kill.

That was during elementary school, he said, before the elite group shunned him. "They didn't say anything bad to me at first," he said. "They would just get quiet whenever I came around. Or if they got together to go some place, they wouldn't tell me about it, or if I tried to sit by them, they would say they were saving that seat."

Soon, he decided, "If they don't want me in their group, then I don't want to be there."

Group of outcasts:

He drifted to a group of students who considered themselves outcasts. Like them, his dress became flamboyant and Goth, all black clothing, black nail polish, dog collars and chains. At the same time, he declared himself a homosexual and delved into heavy metal music and Satanism.

But being different from the other school cliques drew a kind of attention that he didn't like. He tells of being relentlessly badgered and called names while at the same time being shoved, pushed and tripped.

Vidor Principal Lyn Hancock describes Kettl as a "provocative victim."

"(Kettl) would complain of being picked on about his sexual orientation. We would take action and tell them to quit doing it," Hancock said. "But those he accused of being the bullies said he had come on to them more than once, especially some football players."

"I don't think it's right for other kids to bully. But at the same time, self-expression (his dress and behavior) can be taken to extreme. He knew the attention he was getting from that," said Krispin Walker, assistant district attorney for Orange County.

Kettl denies flirting with male athletes.

Prezetta White, who taught the class in Crosby where the sixth-grade girl wrote the "hit list," said bullies are clever at concealing what they do, and often the bullied child hates to be a snitch.

"We can only address what we observe. That makes it really hard," she said.

Before scribbling the word "kill" beside a list of 15 names in April, the Crosby sixth-grader said she never made a friend at school. Her name was withheld because she's a juvenile.

"One day, a kid said he'd be my friend. But he didn't. They never keep their promise," said the 12-year-old, glancing at her lap during an interview at her home.

Most students treated her as if she had a force field around her, repelling anyone who got close, she said. Then, after she was treated for lice, she said, students acted as if she were the "diseased girl" and would never let her touch them.

Classmates admitted the 12-year-old girl had grown somewhat "mean" after being repeatedly called "stinky" because she sometimes smelled or wore clothes that were stained and mismatched.

"Teachers would tell the kids to shut up, sit down and leave me alone," recalled the girl. "But they never did, until I just popped like a balloon."

She would never reveal exactly what set her off the day she wrote the list. But one classmate, Samantha Bliss, who hated the incessant teasing, said that was the first day anyone saw the 12-year-old blink back tears.

The list was confiscated and the sixth-grader was sent to alternative school.

Multipronged approach:

Bullying remains a widespread problem in America's schools. The U.S. Department of Education estimates at least 7 percent of the nation's students ages 12 to 18 have been bullied in the past six months.

To curb bullying, a $213,000 criminal justice grant is being used to fund the Olweus Bully Prevention Program being tested in four Houston Independent School District campuses. It is a multipronged approach that includes a survey to assess the extent of the problem, awareness training for teachers and students, counseling and disciplinary consequences for those who bully.

The key is training everyone on a campus to recognize bullying, which ranges from verbal abuse at the lunch table or in a text message to physically harming or shunning another student, said Rebecca Killern, spokeswoman for Depelchin Children's Center, which provides counselors to HISD.

Michael Dorn, of Macon, Ga., who secretly armed himself after being tormented by schoolmates, authored a popular book, Weakfish — Bullying through the Eyes of a Child, to show the serious consequences of bullying.

"We need to make our kids understand what they should and should not tolerate," he said.
In our own elementary school district here in California's "Imperial" Valley, we have no board policy or other program designed to combat the problem of bullying. There was much support expressed in our school's staff meetings earlier this year about a "bully box" where students could anonymously express their concerns about the numerous schoolyard bullies which infest our campus. Unfortunately, like so many things on our campus, the proverbial football was dropped by the school's administration and soon forgotten.

But the problem was not forgotten by a number of our students who go to school each day in abject terror that they will be physically assaulted by some young thug.

No child should ever go to any school feeling threatened or harassed. This problem can be effectively addressed, but only if schools make it a priority.

And schools should have no greater priority than the safety of their students and the adults who work to help them.
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