Incoming first lady Melania Trump is planning to campaign against bullying, and local anti-bullying advocate Linda Kirkpatrick thinks that is great.
“We need to teach our youth American values – kindness, honesty, respect, compassion, charity, understanding, cooperation,” Trump said at a campaign event at Main Line Sports Center in Berwyn, Pa. on Nov. 3, less than a week before the election.
Trump expressed particular concerns about cyberbullying.
“We have to find a better way to talk to each other, to disagree with each other, to respect each other. We must find better ways to honor and support the basic goodness of our children, especially in social media. It will be one of the main focuses of my work if I am privileged to become your first lady,” Trump said.
Kirkpatrick is president of Family Patterns Matter, a local organization that has been working to stop bullying.
“The National Bullying Prevention Center states one in four students report being bullied,” she said.
She also said statistics indicate 64 percent of students who are bullied never report it.
When there is a school-based anti-bullying intervention program, bullying decreases 24 percent. When a peer intervenes to discourage bullying, there is a 57 percent decrease, according to the Prevention Center.
Statistics on bullying in Coweta are scarce. According to Bully-Stop, an organization based in Woodstock, 77 percent of all students have been bullied in some way – mentally, verbally or physically and only one in three victims of bullying tells someone.
The Georgia Department of Public Health released information on bullying for Georgia students ages 10-14 in 2013. Those numbers showed 41 percent had been bullied on school property, 18 percent had been electronically bullied, 73 percent of those who had been electronically bullied had also faced bullying at school, 50 percent had been in a physical fight on or off school property, 30 percent had carried a weapon and 5 percent had been involved in a physical fight that required medical treatment.
A master’s thesis study at Georgia State University concluded most Georgia students indicated they would be willing to intervene in a bullying situation and showed “a positive school climate is associated with a willingness to intervene.” When students feel safe at school, like school and are successful academically, they are more likely to be willing to intervene.
Coweta schools react to bullying
Dr. Steve Barker, superintendent of the Coweta County School System, said the local schools are taking steps to stop bullying and to deal with complaints when a student is bullied.
“In recent years, definitions of bullying have broadened to include cyberbullying. Policies and investigation procedures have become more detailed as a result,” he said.
The local system’s policies on bullying are modeled after state law.
“As required by law, our policy defines bullying, outlines a process for the investigation of a bullying allegation – and then outlines steps toward disciplinary action,” Barker said.
While the policy provides “reasonable guidance for handling accusations of bullying,” Barker said the policy alone does not prevent bullying.
“School administrators are instructed to take each accusation of bullying seriously and fully investigate to determine if bullying has occurred and then to determine appropriate consequences,” Barker said.
Administrators are to contact the parents of students who are accused of bullying and to inform them of the investigation or allegations against the child.
The system’s student support services office “assists school-based administrators with investigations and with the implementation of consequences,” Barker said. “Based upon the specifics of a situation, findings of bullying may result in warnings, in-school suspension, out of school suspension, alternative school placement, expulsion and possible (criminal) charges.”
Barker said the system takes a number of measures in an effort to educate students and staff members on bullying and to prevent bullying from occurring.
Schools may have their own procedures, as well. Systemwide, there is a requirement to review the Code of Conduct and the bullying policy with students at the beginning of each school year and to provide diversity training for staff members.
Board policy also calls for implementations of Positive Behavioral Instructional Supports.
“This is a research-based framework shown to help reduce bullying behaviors,” Barker said.
More than 22,000 schools in the United States use PBIS, and the Georgia Department of Education endorses the program.
“The premise of PBIS is that continual teaching, combined with acknowledgement or feedback of positive student behavior will reduce unnecessary discipline and promote a climate of greater productivity, safety and learning,” according to the Education Department’s website.
Nineteen school staffs have been formally trained in Coweta, and all Coweta schools will receive training by November of next year.
Three local middle schools participated in the Step-Up Step-In anti bullying campaign this fall. The campaign was made possible due to a grant by District IV Public Health.
All Coweta students and teachers participate in cyberbullying-awareness training each October, which is required by the state.
“Each school has been encouraged to develop an advocacy program to promote meaningful relationships between students and staff members. This is designed to encourage open communication and provide support for students as they attend school each day. Having an adult advocate gives each student a person to share successes, concerns or problems with in a comfortable manner. These relationships help promote a positive climate,” Barker said.
Dean Jackson, public information officer for the school system, noted several local school policies address aspects of bullying. In addition to the policy that is directly about bullying, the bus conduct policy, the internet acceptable-use policy and the student code of conduct all address the issue.
“We've had the policies for several years, and they have been updated periodically,” Jackson said, most recently in 2015.
Myths persist, advocates say
“Bullying is a nationwide issue. Having a first lady who understands the importance of the cause and effect of bullying raises awareness and education. (It also) shows our country and countries around the world that bullying at any level should not and will not be tolerated,” Kirkpatrick said.
Kirkpatrick said she sees great value in bringing informed programs into our schools and communities across our country. Such program would likely follow a first lady’s advocacy.
“I believe our new first lady will show a light on what bullying is and what it isn’t,” Kirkpatrick said. “Most adults don’t understand bullying. They shrug it off as normal behavior.”
“A myth is that bullying is the same as conflict. Bullying is aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power or strength. Bullying is a repeated behavior,” Kirkpatrick said.
“Bullying is not just physical, and the most common form of bullying is verbal. This is for both boys and girls. Social bullying occurs when someone is left out on purpose. It can also be spreading rumors. It happens on social media,” she added.
Bullying causes health issues such as depression and anxiety, Kirkpatrick said.
“It happens in all schools. It is diverse and complex. Children who bully also exhibit other anti-social, violent, troubling behaviors. Bullying has a negative effect on those witnessing it,” Kirkpatrick said.
She said children who are bullied or who observe bullying often do not tell an adult.
“Bullies are often well-connected and leaders in their school,” she said.
“Adults have important roles to play in stopping bullying,” Kirkpatrick said. “If adults took the time to understand bullying, listen to their children, pay attention to their children’s behavior perhaps we could find a solution.”
Andrew Och – who maintains an Internet website on first ladies and is known as “The First Ladies Man” – praised the choice of anti-bullying as a project.
“Melania Trump's choice of cyberbullying is a good one. Bullying is still a huge issue in America, and cyberbullying is something we understand even less,” he said. “If Melania Trump can get people and celebrities to unify behind her anti-cyberbullying campaign, she will be successful.”
He suggested Trump contact Lady Gaga, an internationally known entertainer who is “a huge advocate against bullying and also a Hillary Clinton supporter.” Och said, “If Mrs. Trump can work with Gaga on this issue, it will do a lot of good socially and politically.”
Changing technology also means the cyberbullying project is one that could easily remain a focus for the new first lady for four or eight years. Locally, the issue remains one that is being monitored.
“We will continue to focus on preventing bullying and on appropriately handling bullying when it occurs,” Steve Barker said. “With the many ways that we communicate in our society today, it is more important than ever that we respect each other and model appropriate behavior.”