Printed on: April 02, 2013

'Silent epidemic' of bullying often unreported

By Nate Sunderland, Ruth Brown
Post Register

RIGBY -- A Rigby Junior High School student who was reportedly bullied gathered a cache of weapons and wrote down a kill list.

A disaster was averted last week when the boy's parents found the list and called police.

Local administrators, teachers and student resource officers said protecting students from bullies is a constant uphill battle.

Their difficult task was brought into sharp focus last week in Jefferson Joint School District 251.

Local officials say better laws and more community involvement are necessary to combat bullying.

The problem, school officials say, is that a lot of school bullying -- everything from online taunting to physical abuse -- goes unseen by authorities and much of it is unreported by students.

"Bullying is kind of a silent epidemic," District 251 Assistant Superintendent Don Bingham said. "Some students do bring it forward, but a lot of kids are scared to bring it forward or they don't feel that they will be heard or that anything will be done about it."

Suffering in silence is often the result of pride and embarrassment, especially among older students, said Corey Telford, assistant principal at Madison High School in Rexburg.

"The fact is (kids) don't want to be seen as a nark," Telford said. "It is almost a sense of pride -- the thought that 'I'm almost an adult ,I can deal with this on my own.'

"Unfortunately, it sometimes gets to the point where kids can't deal with it."

Students' reluctance to report bullying means school staff must work to discourage bullying through education and monitoring.

At Sandcreek Middle School in Ammon, students take anti-bullying courses each year. Student assemblies and anti-bullying clubs encourage kids to report bullying.

Principal Lyndon Oswald said the majority of in-school bullying happens in the lunchroom, in the hallways and on buses.

Most local schools employ teachers as hall guards to discourage bullying. Student resource officers also monitor video cameras in schools and on buses to pinpoint conflicts.

These efforts to curb bullying often are successful.

A State Department of Education report shows school officials in Bonneville Joint School District 93 dealt with some 152 incidents of bullying during the 2011-12 school year, the latest year for which statistics are available. There were 189 incidents in Idaho Falls School District 91 during the same period, 124 incidents in Madison School District 321 and 55 incidents in District 251.

School districts are required to track and report bullying incidents to the State Department of Education, spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said.

School administrators deal with the majority of bullying incidents without the need for law enforcement, Bonneville County Sheriff's Sgt. Jeff Edwards said. He supervises District 93's resource officers.

Madison High School uses a three-strike system when dealing with bullying.

First-time offenses are dealt with by administrators and counselors who interview bullies to try to determine the cause of the incident. A second offense brings student resource officers and parents into the discussion.

Penalties for first- and second-offense bullying range from school work duty and detention to temporary school suspension, Telford said. A third offense can lead to expulsion and being charged with an infraction by police.

Student harassment is prohibited under Idaho Code 18-917. Rigby Police Chief Keith Hammon said the bullying statute has been in place since 2006.

Hammon believes the crime should be a misdemeanor.

Because it is an infraction, bullying is punishable only by a $72 fine, Hammon said. The violator does not have to go before a judge.

The infractions are rare. During 2011 and 2012, the Bonneville County Sheriff's Office cited six students for intimidation or bullying. The Idaho Falls Police Department cited one. Rigby police didn't cite any students from 2010 to 2012 and issued one citation in 2013.

Police immediately become involved if bullying involves severe physical abuse or a weapon, Telford said. Idaho schools have a zero-tolerance policy regarding weapons, especially firearms. Any incidents involving firearms are investigated by police.

In District 93, school resource officers confiscate about one firearm a year from students, Edwards said. The officer usually hears about the weapon, confronts the student and then takes the gun. Most guns brought into schools by teenagers come from the youths' parents.

Law enforcement officials urge parents to keep all weapons in a locked gun case and keep ammunition in a separate case that also is locked.

School and law enforcement officials agree that educating students about the dangers of bullying is key to its prevention. Officials also stress the importance of open and honest collaboration between educators, parents and students.

"We need to have a common-sense approach to bullying to make sure we are keeping a safe school environment," Telford said. "Because if kids don't feel safe at school, then no education is going to happen there."