Bullying is an issue that can touch any one of us. Whether you were bullied as a child or your own child is a victim, this problem can have a lasting and devastating impact.
What resources are available in Agoura Hills to protect our children against aggression and intimidation? I went out into the community to find out, and talked to some experts.
I thought it was important to understand the mind-set of a child who seeks to harm others. I approached Christine Zahka, a school psychologist at .
“Often times, kids who bully are victims themselves,” Zahka said. “It may be from some kind of abuse or from neglect, but they bully others in order to boost their own self-esteem.” Zahka said that for these children, causing pain equals power.
Who is the victim?
"The kids who are picked on are generally those who have low self-esteem and won’t defend themselves," Zahka said. "They are often isolated from others and stand out as the perfect target."
Not everyone fits this profile, Zahka said. Victims can be targeted for anything from how they dress to the color of their hair.
There are varying degrees of bullying, said Sahar Barsoum, an Agoura High psychologist. “It can simply be menacing looks, threats or gestures, but it’s enough to warrant a painful reaction from the victim,” she said.
The has adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward bullying, advocating immediate action be taken in response to an incident, according to Mary Schillinger, assistant superintendent with the district.
Schillinger created a school safety report on bullying in 2008, detailing how to effectively deal with the problem by establishing guidelines from elementary school to high school. The report, distributed throughout the district, also includes both preventive and intervention measures.
Bullying in elementary schools
To understand the policy at its most fundamental level, I spoke with Dr. Jessica Kiernan, principal at , where my children attend.
“We believe in taking a proactive approach,” she said.
Kiernan said she travels to each classroom several times a year to teach the children about exemplary character traits and behaviors.
“We discuss what it means to be a good Willow citizen and emphasize the ‘Awesome 8,' " she said, which are words like trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. She also presents the "Big 5," or things kids must never do, such as physical fighting, verbal harassment and intentional interference in organized games.
Kiernan has weekly meetings with supervising aides who report activities that appear outside the norm. A lot of the work Kiernan and her faculty do with students, both the bullied and the bullier, is based on behavior modification.
“This would include keeping an eye on kids who appear to isolate themselves and don’t play with others,” she said. “There is no cookie-cutter solution when dealing with this problem, and the last thing we want to do is ostracize a child for his actions."
For victims, she said, “it’s very important to front-load the child, giving him the tools to stand up for himself.”
If a bullying situation doesn't stop, the school creates a response team made up of a teacher, school counselor, the child and the parents, she said. Kiernan advises kids who are approached by a bully to talk to the nearest adult in the area, whether that be a teacher or an aide. If that isn’t enough, she said, bring the problem to the attention of the principal. "We are always here to help," she said.
The most important factor I have learned from my research is that a child must become empowered in order to overcome bullies. I visited in Agoura Hills to get some pointers from martial arts instructor Doralee Rees on ways that a child can defend himself or herself against a physical attack.
One method is karate, the Japanese art of self-defense and self-empowerment. Rees gave some simple pointers in the included video.
Next week we will follow up with a story about how to deal with cyber-bullying.