In the mid-1980s, first lady Nancy Reagan unveiled the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign.
Her effort ultimately became ridiculed as being a Pollyanna, myopic, head-in-the-sand approach that offered photo ops with cute kids, a catchy slogan and T-shirts, but no real solutions to the problem that made Pablo Escobar famous. Drug use, with cocaine being the substance du jour, continued to escalate as did the number of arrests and imprisonments involving drug traffickers and users, at a great cost to society.
Three decades later, is the same approach being applied to bullying?
Last month, a 13-year-old girl at Hughson’s Emilie J. Ross Middle School received a death threat via text message.
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“She (her daughter) had no idea who this person was and why they would threaten her,” said Christina Fondse, the victim’s mother and an elementary school teacher in the Hughson Unified School District.
Fondse posted on Facebook a photo of the threat – which she considers a form of cyberbullying as it appeared on her daughter’s basic phone – with hopes someone would recognize the number and provide it to authorities. She also went to Hughson Police Services, where a few days later an investigation traced the call to a 10-year-old boy who sent it using a government-issued phone that belongs to his mom.
Upset by the episode, Fondse’s daughter missed 10 days of school. When she returned, Fondse said, the school held an awareness assembly to further educate students on how to recognize and prevent bullying. Yet her daughter experienced more bullying – not to the extent of the death threat, but still intimidation by other students, Fondse said. So she pulled her daughter out of Ross and enrolled her in Denair Middle School on Sept. 9.
“For (her daughter) and our family, the threat was very real,” Fondse told Hughson school board members and administrators on Tuesday night. “In an instant, our lives were changed and we continue to deal with the emotional toll.”
Fondse feels school administrators didn’t take the threat seriously at the onset and didn’t act swiftly or strongly enough once they knew who sent it.
She and several other moms who say their children were bullied in Hughson schools spoke at the meeting. They covered all levels within the school district, from elementary to Hughson High, and all maintain bullying is a problem that needs to be addressed, and now. Some talked about an exodus of students from the district in recent years, blaming it on bullying, among other things. They told the board they want teachers and other school personnel to be mandatory reporters as required by district policy. They want the district to bring back the resource officers whose positions were eliminated in recent years. They want consequences for the offenders that will deter bullying behavior.
And there were consequences in the case affecting Fondse’s daughter, Hughson Unified Superintendent Brian Beck said.
“We did expel a student Tuesday night,” he said. He couldn’t say specifically which one because of privacy laws, but read between the lines.
He isn’t conceding, however, that Hughson has a bullying problem, citing 210 students new to the district compared with 144 who left for various reasons.
“Only one listed bullying as the reason for leaving,” he said. “I can’t remember a kid ever getting thrown out of Hughson for bullying. Bullying has become a blanket statement that covers every kind of ongoing, perverse or threatening type of behavior. One isolated incident doesn’t make it bullying, which is bad. It was a death threat, which is much more serious.
By Beck’s definition of bullying, he still can’t recall a Hughson student being expelled for bullying. And even if the death threat met his definition, privacy laws prohibit administrators from holding up to other students the 10-year-old’s expulsion as an example of the consequences if they are caught bullying. That would apply to any other minor, as well.
Schools all over the nation are looking for effective ways to counter bullying, cyberbullying and their affects on students in everything from campus safety to academic achievement to suicide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducts extensive research on it. Local schools deal with hazing issues involving athletes, including one in Dos Palos that just led to the arrest of a high school football player charged with a felony. Several Hughson High football players were suspended and the head coach missed a game in 2015 following hazing allegations.
School handbooks and codes of conduct address the topic, but it can take several offenses depending upon the degree of aggression before any kind of punishment is rendered.
But while most of the dialogue focuses on prevention, discussion, and education and awareness, bullying continues to be punishable in most cases by a process that protects the bullies more than it does the victims.
Anti-bullying slogans, T-shirts and whatnot appear to be about as effective as the 1980s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, which was not much.