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Originally published Friday, June 11, 2010 at 2:44 PM

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Guest columnist

Stop school bullying by attacking underlying causes

The recent assault of a Mount Si High School student after prolonged bullying of his friend is an example of a too-common phenomenon. Guest columnist Todd Herrenkohl writes clear policies for dealing immediately with bullies are important but adults must deal with the underlying causes

Special to The Times

The beating of a 14-year old boy at Mount Si High School calls for greater emphasis on diversity, more attention to prevention, and clear policies and procedures for dealing with bullies.

The November assault left the teen with a concussion and broken eye socket. He was beaten up after he defended a friend, who endured what was described as several weeks (possibly longer) of verbal harassment about perceived sexual orientation. Both boys stopped attending the school and their parents say each is likely to have to repeat ninth grade.

And the 16-year-old assailant faces second-degree assault charges.

The incident also left parents angry about the school's response and others arguing over whether or how schools can do more to protect vulnerable students.

The fact is that bullying is an all-too-common problem that affects young people of all backgrounds, particularly in early adolescence. Whether they are directly victimized, many teens have been at some point verbally or physically threatened. Some have witnessed or know of other teens who have been chronically intimidated or physically harmed.

Unfortunately, teachers and school officials do not always know about bullying that has occurred. In fact, a recent evaluation of Steps To Respect, a school-based bullying prevention program, showed that students were more than twice as likely as teachers to report physical bullying as a problem in their schools. They were almost six times as likely to report cyberbullying as a problem.

With cyberbullying becoming increasingly more common, the magnitude and complexity of the problem is likely to worsen and become harder for schools and parents to control.

Some youths are bullied because they are different or don't fit in. Others are bullied simply because they say or do the wrong thing to someone who has a statement to make or score to settle. Research shows that the effects of bullying can be pronounced and long-lasting.

Several studies show that youth who are bullied are at higher risk of depression, lower social and emotional adjustment, and poorer relationships with peers. Other studies show that those who bully are more likely than their peers to engage in other problem behaviors (e.g., delinquency, smoking, alcohol use), to have poorer academic achievement, and to suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts.

Even youths who have not been subject to violence themselves can come to fear for their own safety if they associate with others who have.

Immediate responses to bullying by adults, whether parents or school officials, are important, but they have little effect on the problem over the long term unless schools and parents actively deal with underlying causes.

Bullies become bullies because of their need for dominance and control, because they have seen others use violence for personal gain, because they attribute hostile intentions to other youths, or because they lack skills to negotiate conflicts. Research also shows that negative peer influences within and outside school can drive anti-social behavior and increase risk of violence.

Those who bully and fight often have histories of other conduct problems, including early aggressiveness, defiance and impulsivity. Serious acts of violence are rarely perpetrated by youths who have not been aggressive in the past.

Schools should build cultures where difference is valued and diversity among students embraced. Prevention of bullying could include schoolwide committees on changing norms about violence and gender stereotypes. It could also include programs on problem solving and conflict resolution. For parents, there could be programs on setting and managing rules for behavior at home.

Efforts have the greatest impact when fully integrated into day-to-day functions of the school and when all students, school personnel and parents strongly support those efforts.

Tested and effective prevention programs are available. The Blueprints for Violence Prevention project at the University of Colorado, for example, includes recommendations for preventing bullying (www.colorado.edu/cspv/-blueprints/). Another resource, Communities That Care, is available at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website: http://ncadi.samhsa.gov/features/ctc/resources.aspx.

The incident at Mount Si is both tragic and alarming, but unfortunately not uncommon.

It shows how current policies and practices fall woefully short. We need to talk more about valuing diversity and difference and about the reasons youths use violence against their peers. We need to set clear standards for behavior in schools and act quickly on reports of bullying. We must implement best practices for preventing emotional and physical violence that goes with bullying.

Todd I. Herrenkohl is a research scientist with the Social Development Research Group and an associate professor of social work at the University of Washington.

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