Families, administrators, agencies taking steps to stand up to bullies

About 22 years ago, William Packer lost his 10-year-old son forever.

He received a phone call from his son’s principal in Lafayette. Two young girls had accused the boy of playing inappropriately with them.

When his son returned home that day, Packer encouraged him to play with the boys from now on and to leave the girls alone. He went back to working on his truck.

Then, his daughter and stepdaughter came out to tell him their brother had hurt himself.

“It was too late,” Packer said. The 10-year-old had taken his own life.

Packer remembers a girl coming up to him at his son’s funeral with a confession. “She said, ‘It was all a joke. We didn’t mean for him to hurt himself.’ Well, that couldn’t bring my son back,” he said.

Now, Packer and his wife are raising one of their granddaughters — who was also bullied this past school year.

“I don’t intend to lose another one,” Packer said about the reason he attended Centerstone’s Act Against Bullying program June 8 at Brown County High School.

His granddaughter will be a freshman next year — which worries him. Even though he was happy with the junior high school’s response to her bullying report last school year, he’s worried about how her tendency to be a “tomboy” will be received.

He also doesn’t know a lot about computers, and knows he will have to get her one for her homework.

“They tell me they have parental things on there you can do, but … I don’t even know how to turn one on. I do well enough to figure out a cellphone,” he said.

Cyberbullying, suicide prevention and how to help a child who is being bullied were topics of discussion at the program, sponsored by mental health care provider Centerstone.

Words still hurt

Brown County High School graduate Rachel Bogle was a cheerleader, sang in choir, acted in theater productions and was on the high school newspaper staff. She told the crowd the she felt like she was able to sit at any lunchroom table and be accepted.But that didn’t mean that words didn’t hurt her.

She recalled being followed around by a fellow student and her “minions” who made fun of her for “dressing like a Barbie.”

“Little did she know I wasn’t trying to be like anything or dress like anything, I was just raised on hand-me-downs and coordinated sweatpants outfits from Kmart, so when I got older I was really excited that I had some nicer clothes,” she said.

“That’s the problem with bullies. They assume they know your story, they assume their words will hurt, they assume that maybe someday you’ll forget about it, but here I am 28 years old and I still vividly remember all of it.”

She also remembers the time a boy in her English class poked her stomach and made a Pillsbury Doughboy reference.

“For someone that was already self-conscious, that was really all I needed. I spent that summer out here at the high school track every night running seven miles on one Lean Cuisine a day, killing myself so that I could come back my junior year for everyone to tell me how much better I looked,” she said.

Her older sister was bullied more, Bogle said. She is now an artist, musician and educator in Kentucky, but because of her maturity and intelligence, from a young age she had trouble connecting with her peers.

“She was called freak, a weirdo and any other horrible name you can imagine to make someone feel like a worthless outsider,” Bogle said.

“It took a toll on her that still exists to this day. It changed who she was, her personality. She suffered from a self-mutilating disorder called trichotillomania, where you literally pull your own hair out from stress. She was depressed, isolated and there were times she actually questioned whether her life was even worth it.”

“It knows no boundaries when it comes to age, gender, socioeconomic level, sexual orientation, religion and the list goes on and on. It’s robbed so many kids of their futures,” Bogle said about bullying.

Rachel Bogle is now a morning show host for RadioNOW 100.9 in Indianapolis. Even now, she has to find positive ways to cope with comments after being out in public for events, she said.

“More often than not, from other women, women my age, they would make fun of me online, on message boards (and) Twitter. They would even make fake Twitter profiles they would use just to attack me without having to reveal their true identity, calling me things like ‘pizza face.’ I tried to do whatever I could to fix myself,” she said.

That included taking Accutane, used to treat severe acne. “It ended up not only damaging my liver but also causing my hair to thin and losing the majority of my eyebrows, which caused me to be even more self-conscious than I was in the first place about my skin,” she said.

Bogle decided to get permanent makeup on her eyebrows — but that led to more bullying from grown women, she said.

“The moral of the story here is that no matter what you do, there will always be someone out there who has something bad to say about you, to you or in regards to you. No matter how strong of a person you are, words have tremendous power,” she said.

Speak out

Rebecca Cridlin told the crowd about the day her son came home from school and told her that an older boy said he could insult him “three different ways” because of his race.The boy notified the vice principal, who told him he would speak with the student the next day.

That wasn’t the only incident, she said. On a field trip, a different boy pulled her son’s pants down, she said. When her son got back on the bus to go home, another student said he did not like her son because he is Asian.

Al Kosinski, Brown County Schools director of student services, spoke with the Cridlins after the program and said he would check on this case. “I’m glad they spoke up. It wasn’t easy for them to say then, and it’s not easy for us to hear, but that’s why we’re here,” he said.

Melissa Scott, a family support specialist and center employee trainer with Centerstone, encouraged parents to notify school administrators of what their child says is happening.

“If they (administrators) don’t know that it’s happening and they are getting a happy, smiling face, it can be difficult to understand if something wrong is happening and they’re going home and saying, ‘I had a horrible day,’” she said.

Busting bullying can be difficult, especially when there is no video evidence, Kosinski said.

“We don’t give up on them,” he said. “We keep working with the parents. For the most part, our parents are cooperative and work with us to resolve this.”

Angie Evans, vice principal at the high school, said she often gets emails from teachers, paraprofessionals, parents and students expressing concern over another student who may be going through a difficult time.

“You will not believe the things that leads to,” she said.

High school social studies teacher Alecia Adams said teachers are there to help and be an open ear.

“That’s why we’re in education, to help them and encourage students,” she said. “There’s somebody in the school that your child is connected to and that they can trust.”

Tools to prevent bullying

Act Against Bullying keynote speaker Rachel Bogle suggested the following:

FOR STUDENTS:

  • Find an ally in school, whether it be another student, a teacher or administrator. “You can’t be afraid to let them know what you’re feeling, because you cannot do this alone. There is strength in numbers,” she said.
  • Reach out to students who seem alone or who barely speak in class. Smile at them, say hello or ask them to join you at lunch. “You might not know what battle that person is fighting that day or in that season of their life, but one small gesture like that might be the thing that saves their life,” she said.

FOR PARENTS:

  • Stay tuned into your child’s life. “If you want to open a conversation, start with a question like ‘What was the best thing you saw today?’ ‘What’s the biggest thing you have going on this week?’ ‘Tell me what’s new with this friend or that friend.’ They will have to tell you a story,” she said.
  • Be prepared to hear things you may not like. Realize the strength it takes your child to be honest. “It’s up to you to filter through the necessary steps to fix it, but do it through a lense of correcting a problem, making them better, finding them help or steering them out of a difficult predicament rather than breaking them down further, because that only thins the line of communication until there is nothing left at all even at a time when they truly need you,” she said.
  • Monitor your child’s online activity. “Putting a safe search barrier on a computer is not what’s going to protect your child, it’s catching a horrendous inbox message that they’ve received, the trolling Instagram posts that pick them apart, the Kik messenger exchanges, the texts,” she said. “It’s enough to drive anybody to their limit, so you have to stay connected.”

FOR TEACHERS AND ADMINISTRATORS:

  • Believe students who come to you; don’t be jaded because of past bad experiences.
  • Form relationships with students. “For a principal or another administrator to take the time and get to know a student, to know their story without any preconceived notions, is one of the most flattering things any student can experience,” she said.

New programs to help students

A new Centerstone counseling program will take place in all Brown County schools starting next school year.

Centerstone caseworkers will be in the schools all day, every day.

“We have critical mental health needs in our community with children who could be suicidal or have other mental health issues,”  Director of Student Services Al Kosinski said. “To have that presence will be very important.”

One therapist will serve the high school and junior high school and will be able to pull students out of class for private sessions.

One full-time family support specialist will be stationed in the junior high, intermediate and three elementary schools. They will teach life skills to help improve functioning in the classroom and daily activities, and will coordinate with teachers and faculty to create a behavior plan and offer crisis support.

The service will be free to the school corporation. The corporation will provide office space, office furniture and access to Wi-Fi and telephones.

The corporation will also be responsible for referring Medicaid-eligible students for the program. Kosinski said funding may also be available for non-Medicaid students to participate, too.

Caseworkers have a presence in some of the schools already, to work with high-need students and others who need mental health and emotional support.

Family support specialists will be able to work with students year-round, Kosinski said.

The program is contracted for one year, beginning July 1, but grant funding may be available to continue it.

A school liaison job also will be created to collaborate with school leadership teams and communicate with Centerstone.

That person also will help with the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program, a nationwide initiative that promotes “pro-social behaviors” in schools.

Brown County Schools received a $143,000 federal grant for PBIS because of its poverty rate. Kosinski said the district is working with Indiana University and Centerstone to encourage “positively supporting proper behaviors” at all grade levels, in all schools.

The money will be used to pay teachers stipends for attending training sessions this summer. It also will be used to create incentives — such as field trips — for students who show positive behaviors.

“Mental health in kids is really where we’re spending a lot of time now,” Kosinski said.

What is bullying?

Bullying (per Indiana Code 20-33-8-0.2) means overt, unwanted, repeated acts or gestures, including verbal or written communications or images transmitted in any manner (including digitally or electronically), physical acts committed, aggression, or any other behaviors that are committed by a student or group of students against another student with the intent to harass, ridicule, humiliate, intimidate or harm the other targeted student and create for the targeted student an objectively hostile school environment.

Cyberbullying, according to the National Crime Prevention Council, is using the internet, cellphones or other technology to send or post images or texts intended to hurt or embarrass another person.

Examples include posting a threat or slur against someone on a website; posting an embarrassing video about about someone on a site such as a Facebook or YouTube; spreading a rumor about someone via text message or online; pretending to be someone else online in order to trick, tease, harass or spread rumors about another person; or threatening someone through a live streaming-gaming system such as an Xbox or PlayStation.