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Community members share bullying experiences

Forum brings together ideas for helping kids February 9, 2014 at 6:00 a.m. | Updated February 9, 2014 at 6:00 a.m.

Although most people envision a school setting when they think of bullying, victims can be found anywhere - even at church, work, home or online, a panel of local experts said Saturday.

A small crowd - including several parents who were concerned about their children - attended a two-hour forum held Saturday morning at Second Baptist Church on Monroe Street. Each of the five panelists shared their perspective on a problem they believe is growing more serious, in part because social media and the Internet rob young people of the privacy they need to escape bullies' attacks.

Erika Barrett - a counselor with the behavioral health service Life Song - said bullying has been around for a long time, but the definition is changing because of the pernicious consequences of social media.

Words hurt, she said.

"Kids would rather be hit in the stomach than teased daily," she said.

Nicole Saltzman, a clinical social worker who also works at Life Song, said in bygone years bullying was viewed as a mild hazing experience that built inner strength "after you survived it," she said. Many times victims were advised to ignore their tormentors, she said.

"Now it's a constant 24-hour psychological torture. Online, everybody is in on it," she lamented.

An embarrassing incident that once was confined to a half-dozen people on a school bus is now broadcast to the world via Snapchat or Tumblr. And the pressure to publish one's exploits online is leading to more incidents.

Saltzman said that causes kids to start to feel helpless.

"It's changed into a serious thing," Saltzman said.

Jim Leftwich, the school counselor at Belair Elementary, admitted to being bullied as a kid.

"I was fat," he said.

But he was also speedy. Because they couldn't catch him, he could taunt his foes with impunity.

"I would bully the bullies," he said. "I've been on both sides of the coin."

Leftwich learned to deal with bullies' poolside taunts - they called him "tubby, tubby two-by-four" - by deflecting them with humor. When he could make them laugh, they accepted him into the clique. Soon those bullies were saying: "Hey, leave the fat kid alone."

As a school counselor, Leftwich said he's tried to create a culture at Belair where students feel empowered to come to adults for help when they feel picked on. He also tells them to use "I feel ..." messages to help other students understand their behavior is irritating or hurtful.

"You are making me angry. I want you to stop," he modeled.

Teachers in the Jefferson City Public Schools have been trained to use "Positive Behavioral Supports" to suppress negative interactions among children, Leftwich said. Part of that program is an emphasis on getting bystanders and witnesses to the cruelty to interject.

"They can change the equation between the bully and the victim," he said.

Barrett noted she's a fan of teaching children how to identify their feelings and put them into words.

Rhonda Myers, another Life Song counselor, said her son came home from school one day black and blue from his wrists to his shoulders because of a "game" he was playing with other boys. Her son insisted on taking care of it himself, but two weeks later he came home with more bruises. At that point she insisted on intervening and school staff addressed it effectively.

"But I noticed a change in him. He wasn't so happy-go-lucky ... he became more serious," she said. "And now justice is important to him."

Saltzman noted that people tend to divide the world into bullies and victims. But she said a person who might be the victim in one setting becomes the bully in another.

The panelists tended to agree that kids with tumultuous home lives - or kids who witness lots of arguing - often become bullies at school. But controlling, oppressive households - where no one is permitted to express themselves or disagree - also create bullies.

And kids can bully their parents, the experts said.

Saltzman believes people tend to fall into two natural camps. Human are either passive or aggressive, she said.

"Most of us are not assertive," she added.

But in order to deflect or halt a bully's behavior, it helps to be assertive, she said. Saltzman said it's not a good idea to allow a young person to self-identify as a victim for too long and sink into depression.

"They need to learn to speak up for themselves. But if they are being assertive, and they aren't being listened to, then we have to" intervene, she said.

While working at Blair Oaks, Saltzman noticed the district appears to have a supportive culture.

"I needed to wrap my brain around that," she said. "And so I once asked a student there, "Let's say I was weird, poor, dirty and socially awkward. Would you be my friend?'"

Saltzman said the student replied no. But the student also said that everyone - teachers and other kids - will be irritated by the bully's behavior.

"You don't fit in (there) if you're causing unnecessary problems and hurting others' feelings," she said.

One of the best things parents can do is talk with their kids, particularly by asking questions that require more than yes/no answers.

Barrett said: "Nothing feels better than being understood, knowing that the person listening just "gets it.'"

Melissa Crossman, an officer at the Prenger Family Center, said one of the best things her "grumpy" father taught her was her own self-worth. When other made her feel inferior because of the pants she wore, he would tell her that at least she had pants.

"Don't give your kids a chance to feel sorry for themselves. Teach them to be thankful for what they have. Teach them their self-worth," she said.

It was advice that resonated with the crowd.

Saturday's event was also a chance for listeners to share their own stories about bullying.

Parents frustrated by incidents in the public schools were encouraged to document those occurrences and bring them to the attention of school leaders, going up the chain of command.

"Be respectful, but be a thorn in their side," Leftwich advised.

Jan Kruse, who grew up in Jefferson City, said the effects of bullying can be lifelong and devastating.

"I was a victim," she told listeners. "I was the fat kid. The dumb kid. The ugly kid. I was shy ... I didn't want to answer in class and if I did, teachers and other kids were mean to me."

She said their hurtful remarks destroyed her self esteem and led to eating disorders and other bad choices. Kruse said the other students were modeling the disapproving behavior telegraphed by their parents and teachers.

"I'm 58 and it still hurts me to talk about it. I've forgiven them and it still hurts," she said. "I want to tell kids that they are valued and loved."

An online group - called "JCPS-Stop the Bullying!" - is working to focus more attention on the issue. To keep the conversation alive, they've scheduled a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at East Elementary School.

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