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June 4, 2013

MARK HEINIG: How to understand, discourage bullies

— When Gov. Mike Pence signed House Enrolled Act 1423, increasing the anti-bullying requirements for Indiana school corporations, he helped educators in their continuing struggle to protect our kids from schoolhouse bullies. This new law directs school corporations to establish programs to discourage bullies and teach school personnel how to deal with them. It also mandates school corporations to collect bullying data to include in their yearly performance reports.

You can bet the data will show that bullying is still happening — year after year! Don’t get me wrong. I often criticize our leaders for messing up the schools, but this is good legislation. It can’t eliminate bullying, but it will help.

Nobody likes a bully — including the bully! It doesn’t take a psychologist or a counselor to figure that out. The kids who pick on other kids are socially insecure. They try to compensate for their own inadequacies — whether real or imagined — by intimidating fellow students. They seek to frighten their victims into doing what they want. If they succeed, they prefer it to be in public, so other kids can see how tough they are.

Whenever possible, bullied kids shouldn’t fight their tormentors. They usually have a characteristic that makes bullies consider them easy prey. I was a kid with very poor vision until a new surgical procedure corrected it. Until then, I contended with a bully who knew I was nearly defenseless without my eyeglasses. Not fighting him was safer and smarter. It wasn’t cowardice; it was common sense.

My real friends understood that. Bystanders might not speak out, but they usually favor the victim. Some have suffered from bullies themselves or fear they may in the future. Eventually, peer pressure or school authorities will probably restrain the bully.

Nevertheless, some victims choose to stand up to the bully. A challenged bully has only two alternatives — fight or back down! Most bullies won’t fight unless they think they can win. Losing doesn’t fit the “tough kid” image they seek. Backing down may appeal to them, if they can do it without losing face.

Bullies hate to lose face. It can make them even more socially insecure than they already are. Bullies who expect to win may fight, but what if they lose? Then they must stop their bullying or intensify it. It is crucial for educators, parents and other adults to watch discredited bullies closely. Preventing a fight is easier than breaking it up!

How should the bullied kid who doesn’t fight respond? Very cautiously, but not alone! I always urged them to notify the school authorities. As a principal, I insisted that my staff tell me as soon as possible. I personally spoke with the accuser, the alleged bully and any students or staff members who witnessed the incident. I also contacted the parents or guardians of both students.

Sometimes the bully stops bothering the victim after the staff and parents have been alerted, but not always. I advise victims to try to avoid being alone until the problem is solved, especially if there is little or no supervision. When going to and from school or extracurricular events, strength in numbers may help. The school has the authority to enforce its rules at those times, but it’s difficult to do so.

Some parents can’t believe their child bullies others. It’s a very serious charge. In Indiana, parents of a public school student facing expulsion may demand a due process hearing, and they frequently do. They may also appeal the hearing officer’s recommendation to the superintendent, then to the school board and eventually the courts. Although each of these due process procedures is necessary, they seldom resolve a bullying issue.

I believe that student misbehavior can be an opportunity to learn. When disciplinary action is necessary, it should teach the child something constructive. If HEA 1423 helps some schoolhouse bullies to make better choices, it will serve its purpose. No law or school rule will ever eliminate all bullying, but when the General Assembly passed this one, and Gov. Pence signed it, state government did its duty well.

Mark Heinig Jr. of Kokomo is a retired Indiana principal and teacher, and frequent contributor to the Kokomo Tribune. Contact him at markjr1708@gmail.com.   

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