Jacquelyn Helton was hoping for a fresh start for her 10-year-old son as he began his first year in the Hall County school system.
The boy was the target of bullying for several years she said, as he dealt with frequent name-calling and harassment from various students. But as the school year progressed, Helton said her son became more withdrawn and she noticed bruises on his shoulders and legs.
Helton discovered that changing schools and classmates had not put an end to her son's torment.
"It makes me angry, very angry," she said. "I don't know where to turn to at this point."
A growing trend
Helton's story is emblematic of a broader trend: The National Center for Education Statistics reported that in 2007 nearly a third of students ages 12 to 18 reported having been bullied during the school year. That's up from as few as 1 in 10 students in the 1990s.
Bullying is described as intentional tormenting in physical, verbal or psychological ways. It can include hitting, shoving, name-calling and mocking. Others use chat rooms, instant messages and social networking sites to inflict emotional harm.
Whatever the method of bullying, the consequences are clear, said Diane Cook, a professor of psychology at Gainesville State College in Oakwood.
Victims of bullies tend to feel depressed and socially insecure. Bullying also can result in higher absenteeism or dropout rates, Cook said. As students become more withdrawn, it can lead to more victimization.
"Bullies choose their victims because they know they can get to them," Cook said. "They will test people, and depending on how the person responds, it may continue."
Bullying peaks in sixth to eighth grades but persists in high school. Typically, boys do more physical bullying and girls engage in exclusionary or verbally abusive behavior, Cook said.
"In our society, it's considered to be more OK for boys to show aggression," Cook said. "Girls may be aggressive as well, but they tend to ostracize each other, saying things like ‘Let's just not talk to her anymore.'"
24/7 world of cyberbullying
While schoolyard bullying can be difficult to deal with, the Internet has presented new challenges for school administrators and parents. With digital devices more readily available to young people, bullying can be a 24/7 ordeal.
The latest method of bullying, cyberbullying, is when technology is used to manipulate, embarrass or harass. A survey by the Cyberbullying Research Center, a website that has studied cyberbullying since 2005, found that of more than 4,000 teens surveyed, 20 percent had experienced online bullying in their lifetime.
In Hall County, school administrators sometimes have their hands tied when it comes to detecting and policing cyberbullying, Jim Sargent, Hall County director of student services said. Many of the incidents occur off campus, when young people are using their personal computers. But there are still ways school officials can intervene, such as offering counseling services.
"We may not be able to impose a disciplinary consequence, but the truth of the matter is, if something happens in the neighborhood, it will come to school. It's still a student problem and still a school problem, and we have to address it in some manner," Sargent said.
Cyberbullying is often legally defined as repeated harassment online. The Internet can give cover to schoolyard bullies to taunt, spread rumors and unflattering photos anonymously, with shattering results.
Gainesville resident Linda Butler recently learned of the viciousness of cyberbullying after her daughter began to receive abusive messages on her cell phone. Some of the text messages were sent during the school day, and even late at night. Since middle school, her daughter has had problems with various groups of girls, she said.
"Back then, it was more physical bullying, but now that she's older, it's more verbal," she said.
Butler said the years of bullying have affected her daughter's relationships with people and she tends to keep to herself. Her daughter is seeing a counselor.
Policing the problem
As the dangers of electronic bullying become more documented, school districts across Georgia, including the Hall County and Gainesville systems, are revising their policies.
Earlier this year, Georgia representatives modified the laws on bullying and expanded the definition. Under the new rules, each local school board is required to adopt bullying policies for its schools, establish a process for determining whether bullying has occurred and give notice to parents.
The change in state law came on the heels of an 11-year-old boy's suicide last year. Jaheem Herrera was a fifth-grader at DeKalb County's Dunaire Elementary School who committed suicide in 2009 after repeated incidents of school bullying.
The state's plan calls for school systems to ban bullying at all schools, not just grades sixth to 12th, and include age-appropriate consequences.
Gainesville and Hall County systems, along with others across the state, will be required to have a new policy in place by August.
The Georgia Department of Education has found there are cases of bullying in the area, with the highest number of incidents occurring in sixth grade.
According to the 2010 Georgia Health Survey II, about 7 percent of Hall County sixth-graders reported they have been bullied one or two days over the last 30, and the percentage decreases as kids get older.
The Gainesville survey shows similar results, with 8.5 percent of sixth-graders reporting being bullied one or two days over the last 30.
Sargent said because most bullying happens clandestinely, in bathrooms or in the hallways between classes, it can be difficult to monitor. Gainesville officials say many of the incidents occur on the bus or at bus stops.
In school buses, victims of bullying have few places to retreat to, and they often have no choice but to ride the bus. Helton said this was a problem for her son, and many of his run-ins with bullies occurred on the ride home from school. To curb the attacks, the bus driver has her son sit up front, where he can be watched more closely, Helton said.
Sargent said school bus stops are considered school property, and bullies can be subject to the school's discipline code.
"The difficulty is defining ‘What is the bus stop?' They may be dropped off at a stop but walk to their house. Like so many things in life it's black and white until its grey," he said.
Dee Dee Mize, executive director of Family Ties in Gainesville, said bullying is increasingly understood as a form of trauma that negatively affects an individual's confidence and ability to make friends. Educators like Mize believe bullying and other forms of violence can be reduced by encouraging character building and empathy at a young age.
"We teach kids how to squash out negative influence like peer pressure and build their self-esteem. We want to give them the confidence they need to stave off any bullying attempts," Mize said.
Every week, Mize teaches an after-school program through YMCA at middle and elementary schools in Gainesville and Hall County. The students are encouraged to role play different situations related to bullying and are taught to embrace their differences.
"Over two or three classes, I see changes happening. Sometimes students just need someone to listen to them," Mize said.
Area schools also are trying to stay up to date on new research and will introduce speakers or experts to coach staff on anti-bullying strategies. Last year, the Hall County system invited Dr. Russell Sabella, author of "GuardingKids.com: A Guide to Keeping Kids Out of High-Tech Trouble," to meet with staff.
"We've been careful to stay current with information," Sargent said. "These issues we talk about can morph so dramatically. That's why we update year after year because you can fall behind really quickly."
Experts say it's important for parents to pay attention and watch for changing behavioral patterns at home.
Sargent advises parents stay in regular contact with their child's school.
"Even if your child is an honor student and things are going beautifully, you should be meeting with their counselor twice a year minimum," Sargent said. "These problems are so complex, so pernicious and so global, that it really is that ‘takes a village' concept to address it."