For some local students, the walk to class, to the playground or the bus ride home from school can be a painful experience.
In the case of Billy Hulsey’s daughter, the taunts at her Hall County school caused her to feel helpless and reclusive.
“They were ridiculing her in front of other people during class to the point that she felt she was worthless, because that’s what they were trying to make her feel,” Hulsey said.
Bullying has become a major concern, especially after a rash of headline-grabbing tragedies involving young people. Bullied children are more likely to be depressed and anxious, Diane Cook, a professor of psychology at Gainesville State College, said. They often struggle in school — when they decide to attend at all — and are more likely to drop out.
Bullies may hit or push people, call names, threaten or tease. The effects can take an emotional toll on victims, but may also lead to long-term problems.
A study by Dan Orweleus, a researcher of bullying among school-age children, found that the aggression bullies feel can continue into adulthood, and they stand a higher chance of obtaining a criminal conviction. They may also have trouble in their relationships with others.
Cook said there can be a number of factors that lead to bullying problems.
“I’m not a believer that everything from the house moves to school,” Cook said. “You have to look at that child’s case, what the home experience is like, their history and their other relationships with students.”
Students who have had a traumatic event, who do poorly in school or who come from a home where anger and shouting is the norm could translate to aggression at school.
Patterns of bullying may also vary by gender, Cook said. Boys are more likely to report acts of physical aggression. Girls tend to use what is known as relational aggression, bullying that takes the form of name-calling and rumor-spreading rather than physical blows.
Cook said the longer the abuse continues for young people, the longer it can take to undo.
“If you think of how many hours they spend at school and feel they don’t belong for whatever reason, that’s a long time in that environment,” Cook said. “Many adults can still tell you how it made them feel. They have a pretty intense connection to those memories.”
The same can also be said for those accused of the bullying, she said.
“If you have a person who has bullied for years and years, that becomes how they operate. It takes more intervention.”
Dee Dee Mize, the executive director of Family Ties in Gainesville, said there are some strategies and programs to help curb the problem. For several years, Mize has taught an after-school program through the YMCA at schools across Hall County. Part of the program is geared at boosting a child’s confidence, to make them less susceptible to bullying attacks, and actions to take if they are victim to, or witness, bullying.
Bullying usually takes place in front of bystanders, Mize said. Some kids prod the bully along, but most are uninvolved and perhaps fearful to tell, or “snitch.” Mize said she explains to the children the cost their silence can have for those affected.
“I tell them to tell an adult, and it can be anyone in the surrounding area,” Mize said. “If they don’t have an outcome, they need to keep telling someone until they get a result.”
One challenge is getting children to open up about their experiences, which can often be painful, Mize said.
She said she will often dress in character, such as the Nickelodeon cartoon SpongeBob, to put the younger children at ease. Another alias is Miss Purdy, who dons unfashionable glasses and a big plastic nose.
“We talk about why I look so different and why you need to embrace other kids and their looks,” Mize said.
“I don’t know if they’d always share with me, but I know they trust SpongeBob,” she added.
Along with lessons in integrity, perseverance and how to be a protective citizen, Mize said support at home is also necessary.
Experts say parents should ask their child directly about bullying as children often feel shame or fear that bullies will retaliate if they tell.
Hulsey said his daughter was tormented at school for over a year before opening up about her experience. The incidents involved two boys at her middle school but was halted towards the end of the year after school officials intervened. But as the teen entered high school, the boys’ harassment was renewed.
Hulsey said the school has been cooperative; however, he was shocked when officials recommended his daughter change her class schedule.
“My daughter has four classes with the boys and the officials there wanted her to move classes. But why should the victim be the one to move?” he said. “She didn’t want to move classes because her schedule was good for her. She just wanted these bullies to leave her alone.”
The high school has taken steps to put a stop to the harassment, and Hulsey said he’s noticed a change in his daughter. But he worries the solutions may only be temporary.
“I notice she’s smiling more and happy. It’s like it flipped a switch between how she was and how she is,” he said.
From his experience, Hulsey said he learned that bullying isn’t something that can be brushed off. If parents find their child is a victim of bullying, they shouldn’t hesitate to contact the school to seek help.
“The thing I’ve regretted for the longest time is I kept telling her, ‘Look, there will be jerks everywhere you go. And if you just ignore them, they’ll go away.’ That may be true part of the time but not all the time,” he said.
Like the experts, Hulsey also said it’s important to be sympathetic and take the problem seriously.
“Be there for your son or daughter and let them know you’re in their court,” he said.