Room 210

MAP Practice 11-17-2006

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Middle school bullies and their victims

By Michelle Pippin

Norma White, mother of the seventh-grade boy accused of entering Memorial Middle School on Oct. 9 with a rifle, said she wishes now she had done more to help her son when he came home with complaints, and even injuries from other students. She said her son's complaints of bullying began when he entered the sixth grade, and continued - in fact, escalated - into his seventh-grade year.

"He came home once limping; he had been kicked by an older kid in the halls," she recalled. "He came home once with a huge welt on his head from someone slamming his locker door on his head when they passed him in the hall. His hand was injured once too.

"He did suffer from bullying. He would come home crying, begging us not to send him back to school."

White spoke to his teachers about the problem only a couple of times - during parent-teacher conferences - but never made a formal complaint to the administration. She said she advised her son to tell his teachers, but he often insisted nothing would be done about it.

There are others

White's son was not alone in his thoughts that nothing would be done. Aaron Harper, a 13-year-old former Memorial student, said he too suffered at the hands of bullies.

"I never went and told anyone, because it doesn't seem like it will do any good," Aaron said.

In one incident on the school bus, Aaron was assaulted by another student. Aaron said the bus driver never even knew it happened.

He described the incident.

"Some kid sat on top of me, which was kind of weird," he said. "And then started punching me. He was trying to punch my face, but I put my arms up over my face, so he only hit my arms."

Aaron's mother, April Harper, did speak to her son's counselor, who explained, although the school does make every effort to address incidents of school bullying, the sheer number of students, compared to the number of faculty, makes it difficult.

"Our conversation turned toward my son's disciplinary issues," Harper said. "Aaron was kicked off the bus for cussing out the bus driver, and mostly we talked about his behavior.

"I know kids cuss - particularly at this age - but I just can't imagine Aaron cussing out a teacher or bus driver or any authority figure."

Harper said she'd never had these types of disciplinary problems with Aaron at home - not in church or at the Bridge, where he commonly goes with his friends. So she doesn't understand why he would behave this way at school.

"The counselor said she finds that sometimes, otherwise well-behaved kids will be influenced by bad behavior around them," Harper said. "In frustration, she said, kids will do things they normally wouldn't."

Harper said she understood the counselor's assessment of her son's and the other kids' behavior, "but how does that help my son?" she asked.

Aaron said most of the bullying occurred in between classes as kids were making their way through the halls.

"I got pushed into my locker all the time," Aaron said. "Kids would just slam you into your locker for no reason when they'd walk by."

The fine lines between horseplay, bullying and assault

A Memorial seventh-grader, who spoke to on the condition that he not be identified, said he could attest to the behavior Aaron reported, but wouldn't have classified it as "bullying." He said it's just kids rough-housing.

"That's a game for us; we slam our friends into the lockers. We hit each other all the time. We're not violent; we're just messing around with each other," he said. "Like, 'Oh - I'm gonna get you now - the teacher's not looking. I'm gonna hit you with my book.'"

The seventh-grader spoke of one boy, "Timmy" ( changed this student's name to protect his identity) who is relentlessly teased by other students, "because they can get a rise out of him."

"There's this one kid that everyone knows they can get to because he gets so mad - he just starts crying," the seventh-grader said. "He gets hit all the time. They slap him. Once, he got shoved into the water (in a small retention ditch on school grounds). After a while, it just gets so fricking annoying. He just cusses everyone out. We all make fun of him.

"I just tell him to shut up because I get sick of it. When he hangs out with us (at lunch), I don't really care because I'm eating and talking to my other friends. But when he starts talking and stuff, I just tell him to shut up."

The seventh-grader said not all kids are bullied. Just "certain people, like 'Timmy' because he gets aggravated easy, and starts, 'Wa, wa, wa (crying).'

"People usually only bully when they can make (someone) aggravated - like 'Timmy' - because they know their weaknesses," the seventh-grader said. "'Timmy' doesn't really care if I do it; just when everyone else does it."

Addressing the issue - correcting the problem

Memorial Middle School Principal Steve Gilbreth said he's not been made aware of the "bullying" described by the Harpers and Mrs. White.

"Do kids get into fights? Yes. Are there kids who are bullied? Yes," Gilbreth said. "If something is reported to me, I deal with it, but I know nothing about (the types of assaults) you're talking about."

Since the shooting incident at Memorial, however, the Joplin R-8 School District is implementing a new anti-bullying program.

"It's called 'Just Tell It,' and it's already begun at Memorial," Gilbreth said. "Teachers are (taking special) classes, and then giving presentations to the students. We're teaching the kids the difference between telling and tattling. The program teaches kids not to suffer in silence; to tell someone what's happening. Tell a teacher, a counselor, the principal or their parents. Tell someone who can help, and we will help."

Gilbreth said the school has strict procedures for dealing with students assaulting other students.

"The (bully) will go home for 10 days, and we file a complaint with the police," he said.

Dana Sanders, chief Jasper County juvenile officer, said her office doesn't receive many referrals for school bullies.

"I don't have any hard numbers to say just how many we receive, but there's not a lot of referrals to our office for bullying," Sanders said. "Most often, the schools handle their own discipline for these situations."

Sanders said there are two things, in particular, that understandably frustrate parents when a child's bullying case is referred to her office.

"We have only so many (juvenile officers) to deal with so many kids, and the victims, of course, always want something done," Sanders said. "But what gets very frustrating (for parents) is that we're not a punitive-based system. We are a rehabilitation-based system."

Meaning, the Jasper County Juvenile system is designed not to punish the bully, but to rehabilitate him or her. Sanders explained. If the system can rehabilitate the bully, and stop the behavior, then more children are helped. The bully gets put on a path of appropriate behavior, and this helps the child being bullied and other potential victims.

"We look at what is the best course of action to get (the bully) back on track," she said.

Protecting the children

Harper said she withdrew her son from Memorial Middle School three weeks ago and is now home-schooling him.

"After the school shooting, I understand the district is doing more to address security," Harper said. "But, honestly, the last thing I'm worried about is someone coming into the school with a gun. I worry about what these kids are dealing with day to day - day in and day out.

"I've watched Aaron crying at night - begging us not to make him go back to school. I listen to Mrs. White saying that her son also cried and begged not to go back to school. I realize how much her story sounds like ours."

Asked if she wishes she'd done something differently, Norma White said, "You cannot imagine."

"I wish so much I'd never even sent him (to school)," White said. "I was so afraid of the laws that say our children have to have adequate education. Private schools are pricey, and I wasn't sure about the home-schooling thing. I just didn't know what to do."

Gilbreth said, like the bullying recounted by the Harpers and Mrs. White, if he is not made aware of the bullying, he can't fix the problem.

"I'm doing the very best I can to run a safe school," Gilbreth said. "If the students and parents tell us what they're dealing with, we will investigate every case. Every single one."

Norma White offered the same advice to students and parents.

"If an adult was bullied this way when they went to work every day - with people throwing things at them, hitting them - how long would they deal with it before they quit or snapped?" she asked. "There are a lot of kids under this kind of pressure, and I wonder how many parents don't know it. We have to ask ourselves, 'Is my kid being bullied? Is my kid a bully?

"It could be your kid."

To report bullying at your child's school, call or visit your building principal or the Joplin R-8 Schools administration office at 625-5200, 1717 E. 15th St., Joplin.

Get Support

Rosana Ladik of Diamond, a former Joplin resident, said she feels school bullying cost her son his life. Ladik moved to Joplin from Illinois in mid-2005 with her husband, son and daughter. Her 18-year-old son did not enroll in Joplin High School when he got to Joplin; instead, he committed suicide on March 11 this year, after suffering at the hands of bullies throughout his high school years in Illinois.

Ladik is the director of both the Bully Police Missouri within the Joplin R-8 District, which works to educate and eradicate bullying, and the Anti-Bully-Coalition, a group she is forming locally to offer support, education and resources to parents and the children victim to bullies. Ladik is asking those in need of help to contact the ABC at 417-553-4112 or e-mail