NC schools search for new ways to handle bullying - WNCN: News, Weather

NC schools search for new ways to handle bullying

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DURHAM, N.C. -

Bullying in schools is not a new problem, but here in North Carolina there are many people looking for new ways to deal with the issue.

Experts say traditional zero tolerance policies are not the answer because they just don’t work.

All school systems have bullying policies, but they vary in effectiveness -- as one Durham family found out.

Sebastian Milhoan, a fourth grader, is leaving his school and his family is moving out of state before the end of the school year because of what has happened to him at Durham’s Forest View Elementary.

“I made a lot of enemies in school and I just don’t want to see them again,” he said, his voice cracking and tears coming to his eyes.

When his family moved to an apartment complex just across the street from the school, Sebastian’s dad thought it was ideal. It turned out to be anything but.

Sebastian’s problems began last year in third grade.

“I started getting bullied a lot and it kept going on through fourth grade,” he said.

Sebastian said it began with teasing by one person and escalated over several weeks with other kids joining in.

He kept it quiet for a long time, hoping it would stop. When it didn’t, he finally told his parents and they met with the school principal.

“My wife and I had a conference in his office,” said Ben Gerlach. “He said he would look into it. I said, ‘When you do, you need to call me and tell me what is going on.’”

But Gerlach said that call never came.

“I waited a week or so; no response. No nothing until third grade ended,” he said.

Durham school officials said confidentiality laws prevent the system from releasing any information about specific student bullying cases. But officials said it’s the system’s policy to respond.

“We try to make sure the victim of the bullying does get reassurance, support and help,” said assistant superintendent Deborah Pittman. “Our counselors are poised to work with students.”

Sebastian’s dad claimed that never happened.

And when school began again this year, the bullying resumed and even included kicking and pushing on a daily basis.

“I told my gym teacher when I was in gym, but he just ignored me,” said Sebastian.

Sebastian’s parents pulled him out of school for a week, hoping things would calm down. When it didn’t help, they went back to the principal.

“I said, ‘I want to set up a meeting with you and the school superintendent in the next day or so or I’ll take him out of school permanently,’” the father said.

“I said, ‘This has to stop; you’re not doing anything. You said you’d handle this problem. It’s been three or four months and you need to do something now,’”Gerlach recounted.

Pittman says the system offers choices in some cases.

“We offer a transfer to a different school or principals will change teams and environments so there is less opportunity for folks to interact during a school day,” she said.

Sebastian’s dad asked for a less drastic option.

“I suggested he move to another class and they said, ‘No we can’t do that; it’s just the beginning of the school year and we can’t do that.’ I said I think that would be best before it escalates into a bigger problem.”

Experts say some principals don’t want to deal with bullying.

“They tell me, I’m too busy to deal with bullying, putdowns and trash talk,’ said William Lassiter, deputy commissioner of juvenile justice for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. “What I tell them is that if you don’t deal with the smaller types of incidents then they are only going to grow into bigger types of incidents.”

Lassiter said the state is looking for innovative ways to combat bullying and to give administrators more options.

“We’re looking at alternatives to suspension; is there another way to handle that problem?” he said.

Lassiter said a possible solution is to create more alternative schools or alternative placements for kids. That way, bullies are removed from the school environment but still get their education so they don’t turn to more delinquent behavior later in life.

One Wake County school created its own innovation after asking students to come up with their own anti-bullying solution.

The kids at Holly Grove Middle School created “the bully box.”

“One of the strengths of this program is that it’s a student-centered program; the students came up with the idea of the bully box,” said Holly Grove Middle School principal Ken Proulx.

Placed in every room at Holly Grove Middle School, Proulx says the boxes have resulted in a huge spike in bullying reports.

“What we have noticed is a rise in the witnesses that are reporting bullying that is happening to someone else,” said Proulx

When the bully box scores a hit, students are told a tip paid off.

“What that has done is sent a message to the school that the bully box is an effective way of communication; that it’s something that if you decided to stay anonymous we will protect you but we’ll always follow up and make sure we need to do to address those situations,” said Proulx.

Lassiter said surveys the state has conducted indicate 40 percent of North Carolina middle and high school students say they’ve been bullied in some form.

As a result, experts say parents need to do their part in making sure their child isn’t bullied and has the counseling to help them deal with the situation.

In Ben Gerlach’s case, he thinks he wasn’t aggressive enough and decided to try and solve the problem by moving away.

“I made a huge mistake,” Gerlach admitted. I didn’t walk through the school like I should have. I blame myself. I regret it. It won’t happen again”

Experts like Lassiter say it is easy for parents to get confused about where to turn and what to do.

“Parents a lot of times feel intimidated by the system,” said Lassiter.

As part of the North Carolina Safe Schools Center, Lassiter said, “We try and empower them with the tools they need to go in and have that honest discussion with administrators and with teachers.”

After almost two years of miscues and frustration, Gerlach said he won’t make the same mistake again when his son changes schools.

“I will seriously do my homework at the next school he goes into: I just need it to be a peaceful environment,” Gerlach said.

Copyright 2014 WNCN. All rights reserved.

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Steve Sbraccia

Steve is an award-winning reporter for WNCN and former assistant professor. A seasoned professional, Steve is proud to call the Triangle home since 2005 after over two decades in Boston, Mass.  More>>

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