Kelley Atherton, The Triplicate

District adoptsnew rules, setsAugust forum

Bullying has always been a problem, but concerns seem to be rising nationwide.

Some parents have actually put wires on their children to catch bullies in the act.

A documentary released this year called "Bully" follows five victims and has been getting kudos at film festivals.

The Bully Project, a social action campaign for the film, calls for action. The first words that appear on its website,, are: "13 million kids will be bullied in the U.S. this year."

Parents are speaking up, demanding change and using social networking sites to call others to action.

One of them is Del Norte resident Cherce Norris. After hearing her son complain of being bullied at school and in sports practice, she got on Facebook and created the group, "If you really knew me ... You would know." It now has more than 1,200 members.

Last month, the Del Norte County Unified School District Board approved a bullying policy.

A bullying forum is being planned for August, said School Superintendent Don Olson.

"We're trying to change the climate of school," Olson said.

Students set the standards

Through a joint effort of adults and students, Crescent Elk Middle School developed a code of conduct last March. Students chose the main points they want to strive for: academic achievement, clean campus, respect others and create a bully-free school.

In the last few months of school, Crescent Elk had a "huge decrease in suspensions," and Olson credits the new code of conduct. He believes this is because the students developed the code rather than being told what to do by adults.

"They have ownership of it," he said. "If they get involved in the process, it's not something done to them."

When students break one of the rules they can be suspended (in school or out of school) and have to do a writing exercise to reflect on what they've done, Olson said.

The next step is to create a code of conduct for each school, he said.

Such codes of conduct are recommended in a system of promoting and supporting proper behavior designed by the U.S. Department of Education and national experts.

A widespread problem

Olson said he gets a number of phone calls from parents about their children being bullied. Often it starts online with cyberbullying - harassing, threatening or harmful communication sent via text, email, phone and the Internet - which tends to spill over into school, he said.

Bullying used to be thought of as one kid taking another's lunch money, he said, but has evolved to any threatening or harmful behavior toward someone else.

Nationwide, 28 percent of children in grades 6-12 say they have been bullied, according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics. Of those children, only about one-third of the incidents are reported to adults.

Kids who have been bullied are more likely to be depressed, have anxiety, lose interest in activities, have health problems and problems sleeping and eating, according to Bullied children's academics and school participation may suffer.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, as many as half of children are bullied during their school years and 10 percent are bullied consistently. This can have a great impact on their well being:

"Children who are bullied experience real suffering that can interfere with their social and emotional development, as well as their school performance," according to the AACAP. "Some victims of bullying have even attempted suicide rather than continue to endure such harassment and punishment."

The district's work to prevent bullying and develop a plan for dealing with incidents will be rolled into its overall effort to reform the school system, Olson said.

The district is looking into using Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports as its agent of change, and the California Endowment, through Building Healthy Communities, is interested in funding training and material to bring PBIS to Del Norte schools, Olson said.

Schools have found success with this system and promoting a code of conduct designed by students, he said. In schools that district staff and community members visited while studying different educational models, student codes of conduct were prominently displayed to constantly remind students of their responsibility, Olson said.

The focus is on how the school expects students to act, teaching social skills to promote good behavior and getting kids to think before they say or do something, he said.

The system calls for restorative justice: When there's a conflict between individuals, they talk about what has happened, the harm it caused and how to restore the relationship while providing justice. They "settle up" their differences, Olson said. The district wants students to take responsibility for their actions, he said.

Guidance from state

The district's new policy is modeled after one recommendedby the California School Board Association. It's in accordance with a new state law on bullying, AB 9 authored by Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), that went into effect July 1.

The law requires districts to have a bullying complaint procedure and method for disciplining bullies.

The district's bullying policy states "no student or group of students shall, through physical, written, verbal, or other means, harass, sexually harass, threaten, intimidate, cyberbully, cause bodily injury to, or commit hate violence against any other student or school personnel." This includes cyberbullying.

The district is developing a new protocol for how students can report bullying and how it's dealt with by school staff, Olson said.

The policy can be viewed at, then click on the left side, "Board Agenda Online" then "Calendar" and selectthe June 21, 2012, district Board meeting and look under "consent agenda."

Students are encouraged to notify school staff they or others are being bullied. The district "shall develop means for students to report threats or incidents confidentially and anonymously," the policy states.

The district is working on a reporting procedure specifically for bullying, Olson said. There is already a uniform complaint process that outlines how a parent should make a complaint to the district.

Parents should first talk to a teacher, principal or the superintendent who will "will try to resolve the issue with you at this step within five working days and will investigate as appropriate or as required by policy," the complaint form states.

The form and information on parents' rights can be found at

The bullying policy states school staff is to intervene immediately when a student is being bullied, contact parents of the victim and perpetrators and involve school counselors, mental health counselors and/or law enforcement if necessary.

"Complaints of bullying shall be investigated and resolved," the policy states.

Olson echoed this, saying, "We will investigate."

If parents are not satisfied with how a bullying issue with their child is handled or feel it's not being handled, Olson said they should keep reporting it.

When bullying is reported, school staff members will talk to the other student and determine what happened. If a student was bullying another, staff will counsel the student, Olson said. But, if the student is repeatedly bullying, he or she will be suspended or expelled, the superintendent said.

"We will not ignore it," he said, but "we give students due process." School staff has to get both sides of the story, he said.

"Both parents and school officials want to stop bullying," Olson said, but they may "differ in means to make corrections."

Crime and punishment

Students who are found to have bullied others on school grounds or off (this includes cyberbullying) will be disciplined, which may include suspension or expulsion.

Last school year, 28 students were suspended for bullying, compared to 25 the year before that, according to the district.

The district is bound to strict state guidelines for disciplining students.

"The big five" crimes that require immediate expulsion of students, Olson said, are possessing or selling a firearm on school grounds, brandishing a knife at another person, selling controlled substances, sexual assault or batteryand possessing an explosive.

Then there are acts for which administrators may recommend a student for expulsion. These include physical injury, possessing dangerous objects, damage to property, obscenity or profanity, disruption, sexual harassment, hazing and bullying.

However, first, administrators have to try and stop the student from committing these offenses. But expulsion is necessary if "means of correction" have failed to stop the improper behavior or the student poses a continuing danger to others, according to state guidelines. The School Board approves expulsion.

When students are expelled they are educated in one of the County Office of Education programs, as are students who have broken the law or are on probation.

What's behind bullying?

Bullies are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, vandalize property, drop out of school, engage in early sexual activity, become criminals and be abusive toward partners and/or children when they grow up, according to

Bullies often torment others because they have been abused, are depressed or upset about something that happened at home or school, according to the AACAP.

"Children and adolescents who bully thrive on controlling or dominating others," according to the AACAP. "They have often been the victims of physical abuse or bullying themselves.Bullies may also be depressed, angry or upset about events at school or at home."

Del Norte has one of the highest rates of child abuse in the state, according to the website, a program of the Lucille Packard Foundation for Children's Health that collects data on the health and well being of children in California.

In 2011, the child abuse rate was 144.3 cases per 1,000 kids under 18 years old, according There were 875 reports of child abuse and neglect in Del Norte, down slightly from recent years. 

Of those cases, 167 were substantiated. Del Norte's rate of substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect is 27.5 per 1,000 kids in 2011. In 2009, the child abuse rate hit a high of 50.1 per 1,000 kids. Despite the decrease, Del Norte still has one of the highest rates in the state - only Trinity County has a higher rate of 35.2 cases per 1,000 kids. The state rate of substantiated cases is 9.1 per 1,000.

Most cases involve children 6-10 years old, but there are still quite a few cases of abuse with children younger and older.

The district is focused on changing student behavior - therefore preventing bullying - because punishment is not always a deterrent, Olson said. Behind the idea of restorative justice is breaking the cycle in which a child gets into trouble at school and set onto a path away from success in life, Olson said.

"The best place for students is in school," Olson said.

Reach Kelley Atherton at