Tackling the bully problem in Portland schools

Credit: Katherine Cook

Tackling the bully problem in Portland schools

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by Katherine Cook

Bio | Email | Follow: @KCookKGW

kgw.com

Posted on August 26, 2013 at 12:07 PM

PORTLAND -- On a beautiful fall day in Southwest Portland, a group of Cedar Park Middle school students agreed to help us tackle an ugly subject: bullying.

Sitting outside on a grassy hill, our "panel of experts," is happy to get some fresh air and provide candid insight into the wold of bullying, knowing that many adults have forgotten what it feels like to be a sixth, seventh or eighth grader.

"Life in middle school is pretty challenging socially," said eighth grader, Will Barber.  "Not everyone gets who you are."

And not everyone, is always nice.
   
"They (adults) may think (all students) are good angels, but some of them just aren't," said sixth grader, Edwardo Miranda.

We call them "bullies," and they can make life miserable for their victims.   

"I just don't talk or pass by (bullies), and sometimes I even hide," shared Miranda.

Many of our students said they know what it feels like to get picked on, and in some cases, pick on others.

"It was just really easy to target him," admitted eighth grader Kai Klocke, referring to an occasion when he regretfully joined a group of classmates in taunting another student.  Klocke said at the time, putting someone down didn't seem like a big deal.

"(Making fun of someone) is partly just to make yourself feel better about yourself, about your insecurities," admitted Klocke.

Some kids are victims of "cyber-bullying." 

"This person was texting her rude notes and kept texting her rude notes," said seventh grader Victorya Stallworth, recalling when a friend was getting bullied via text messaging.  Stallworth said she tried to get her friend to tell an adult.

"She didn't want to because she was embarrassed by it," she said.

And that, said Cedar Park Principal, Linda Hall, is the crux of the bullying problem.

"When (bullying) is not dealt with, things escalate," Hall said.  "Students are often worried about talking about what happened to them for fear of even further retaliation."

Hall said breaking down those fears is key.  To do that, she and the Cedar Park staff promote peer-mediation between bullies and their victims, moderated by an adult.  She said the results have been surprising.

"Before we knew it, (students) were saying, 'You know, I used to hate this guy, but now I really like him because I understand who he is,'" said Hall.

Seventh grader, Yasmine Go concurred with Hall, recalling a time when she dealt with a bullying problem through peer medication. 

"We talked to the person and now they're nice to us," she said.

While mediation doesn't always result in friendship, Hall said getting kids to report bullying is essential to their health and safety.

"What I tell them is, 'You have to trust me, I've been doing this a lot of years and I know how to help make this stop.'"

Eighth grader Nikky Martin has dealt with bullying in the past.  She said she's glad she told an adult about it.

"(The bullying) happened for a week or so and then after that I thought, 'Well I should just tell a teacher,'" recalled Martin.  "Now I don't get bullied."

But what happens if bullying is allowed to fester?  What if a child gets picked on every day?
   
"Being bullied might actually be having an impact on the brain of a child who's being bullied," said Dr. Courtney Stevens, a cognitive neuroscientist, who studies brain development at Willamette University.

Citing studies done on golden hamsters, Stevens said researchers are learning just how damaging consistent bullying can be.

"During what is the hamster-equivalent of adolescence, researchers would expose (the hamster) to an hour of essentially "bullying," every day, said Stevens.  "Another hamster would nip at it, pick on it, and what (researchers) later found was those hamsters who had been picked on and bullied, were more likely to be aggressive if they were in the presence of a smaller hamster, and they also had differences in their brain chemistry." 

In the human brain, Stevens said the frontal lobe may be especially vulnerable, because it continues to develop during adolescence. She said that part of the brain is especially important for controlling emotions and impulses

"You can imagine that if the human brain is still developing during this period of adolescence and child being picked on, their brain chemistry may be changing just as you see in studies in animal models," said Stevens.

So are some kids born to be bullies, or are bullies simply born out of being bullied themselves? Stevens said, it's not that simple.

"It's no more nature or nurture," observed Stevens.  "We know that these two things work together."

A suggestion that not every kid who's bullied is doomed, and a reminder that putting an end to it quickly, is paramount to their health.  In cases like Nikky Martin's, it can also mean turning a negative experience into a life-long resolution.

"Now that I've experienced how it feels to be bullied, I wouldn't want to hurt anyone else," said Martin. 

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