To help battle what groups some have called an insidious epidemic, the Polk County School Board Tuesday declared October Anti-Bullying Awareness Month.
Even though Polk County school statistics show a drop in substantiated bullying incidents last year, the recent suicide of a Lakeland middle schooler attributed to cyber-bullying brought the issue back to the board’s attention.
Citing “it is important that we acknowledge and heighten awareness of the serious issues and the negative effects of bullying, including the long-term damage it can cause our youth,” the board reinforced its stand on bullying by proclamation.
The board has mandated anti-bullying polices and students are taught about bullying in every grade early in each school year, according to Jim Maxwell, a school psychiatrist who directs the Polk County School’s Student Services unit.
“We take it very seriously,” he says.
He explains that bullying is usually verbal, but can also be physical. It involves an imbalance of power and unwanted behaviors such as teasing, violence, humiliation, stalking or rumors, and it has also spread to cyberspace through computers, cellphones and tablets.
Reports indicate that bullied students become depressed, afraid to go to school and, Rebecca Sedwick says, even, in the extreme, be driven to suicide. It can also manifest itself in other ways. Kids may complain about having a headache, a stomach ache or other physical reason to avoid going to school.
Audrey Kelly-Fritz, Polk’s Senior Manager for Prevention Health and Wellness, accepted the school board’s proclamation and told the school board that awareness has been heightened, but students “are more comfortable reporting what’s happening to someone else.”
In Polk, substantiated bullying reports dropped from 175 in the 2010-11 school year to 136 last year, officials said.
“Our parents and adult population are becoming more knowledgeable about bullying,” Kelly-Fritz says. “They are becoming more savvy at listening to our children and reporting it for them.
“I love when I hear a child say they are tired of seeing this happen to their friend and I don’t want it to happen any more.”
Being aware of what to look for is key, the experts say. Smaller, weaker children without a lot of friends, who often are more emotional may be targets, Winter Haven pediatrician Dr. Donald Eason says.
“Children who may be different in some way are often targets,” he explains.
Kelly-Fritz suggests that bland responses are best.
“You just don’t show the bully you are upset,” she says. “They want the reaction.”
If that doesn’t work, the incident should be reported to an adult, whether it be a parent, a family friend or a teacher.
A local pediatrician, Dr. Mathew Corey said, “Middle and high school can be rough places. With the advent of social media, it’s given kids who are going to bully others, another way to do it.”
To report bullying in Polk County’s schools, or for more information about the district’s bullying policies, one may go to www.polk-fl.net/districtinfo/departments/learningsupport/ studentservices/bullying.htm.