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Experts say schools, students and parents need to join forces on bullying

by TAYLOR INMAN
Daily Inter Lake | January 24, 2023 12:00 AM

This is the third in a three-part series examining the effects of bullying through the lens of students, parents and faculty at Bigfork High School.

15-year-old Annmarie Edwards said she misses the feeling of performing on stage.

She was an avid member of the Bigfork Playhouse Children’s Theater until bullies started picking on her in middle school. The experience gave her anxiety and depression that became too much for her to return to an activity she loved.

“Theater — it was so much fun. But I can't do it because when I get up there, I just can't speak,” Edwards said.

Edwards withdrew from Bigfork High School after the first day of school in 2022, having struggled with bullying during the prior two years. She has had four stays at mental health clinic Pathways since starting high school, checking in after having suicidal thoughts.

Edwards is one of several students to depart the district recently in the wake of bullying. Other students interviewed by the Daily Inter lake reported suffering harassment because of their race or sexual orientation.

Edwards’ family links her struggles to bullying, and Julie Hertzog, director of the PACER National Bullying Prevention Center, said it also exacerbates underlying mental health problems and even affects physical health.

“Oftentimes kids will say, ‘I don't want to go to school today because I have a stomach ache,’ and that stomach ache might be manifested by the anxiety caused from going to school and having to relive a bullying incident all over again,” Hertzog said.

Hertzog said adolescents experiencing bullying need support from both parents, guardians and educators. Parents need to take it seriously, she said.

“I think it's really easy for us as parents to be like, ‘Oh, just ignore it, it'll go away,’ or ‘It can't be that bad.’ So, avoid minimizing the behavior and say, ‘you know, what is actually happening?’ Sit down and have a conversation,” Hertzog said.

The next step involves developing a plan. Hertzog said it’s important to include the child in the solution, because children who are bullied often feel powerless in their situation.

She also advised parents or guardians to share with school officials factual information about the bullying incidents.

“For example, if there was online bullying at all, it's really important to be keeping screenshots or any sort of what are called 'tangible pieces’ to show the school,” she said.

Hertzog said bullying is sometimes chalked up to an issue with the parents, the student or how the school has been handling it. Ultimately, it involves all three parties, so it’s important to keep open lines of communication, she said.

“This is a societal issue. It's not just up to the schools to solve, but it's up for all of us to work together to solve it,” Hertzog said. “So that kids feel empowered, parents feel empowered and schools do as well. Everybody working together is really what we stress.”

PACER eschews referring to children as “bullies.” Instead it uses “kids who bully,” because they want to avoid giving a child a label they feel they cannot escape.

“Because bullying is about behavior and we say that behavior can change. When you label a child as ‘the bully,’ you're really putting them then into the stereotype and not giving them the opportunity to change their behavior or to redirect it,” Hertzog said.

She said there are many reasons why people bully others — it could be a need to feel more powerful than others, to feel in control, or to fit in with a peer group. Occasionally, a child who bullies might have suffered bullying themselves and is now trying to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

“They might do it just because they don't realize the impact that it's having on another person,” Hertzog said. “We hear that a lot from kids who have self identified as somebody who's doing the bullying, they always say I didn't realize that this was hurting that other person that much.”

A bullying issue at a school can also impact students who witness it. Hertzog said students report feeling less safe at school after witnessing bullying. She said there is fear and anxiety for them because they are unsure if they could be the next victim. This contributes to a cultural issue in the school where bullying continues to occur.

According to PACER, about one in five students in the U.S. report being bullied. A 2013 study found that youth who self-blame and conclude they deserved to be bullied are more likely to face negative outcomes, such as depression, prolonged victimization and maladjustment.

For Annmarie, the obvious culprits for her bullying are her weight and appearance. Her mother Mandi Edwards, however, is quick to quell those insecurities.

“It's so sad that you even think that. When someone else is being mean, it’s because of their own things that they're dealing with,” Mandi Edwards said. “There are also those people that love to put other people down because it makes them feel better about themselves, you know, makes them look cool … Seriously, it's not you. It's not your fault, you don't deserve it.”

Local mental health resources are available on the National Alliance for Mental Illness Montana website nami.org. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

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