Bullying not a joke, assistant county attorney tells students

Princeton Middle School recently brought out someone with law enforcement clout to speak to students on the seriousness of bullying – Assistant Sherburne County Attorney Victoria J. Powell.

Joel Stottrup / Union-Eagle Assistant Sherburne County Attorney Victoria Powell speaks to a group of students at Princeton Middle School on Oct. 25.
Joel Stottrup / Union-Eagle
Assistant Sherburne County Attorney Victoria Powell speaks to a group of students at Princeton Middle School on Oct. 25.

Powell told groups of mostly seventh-graders on Oct. 25 that “bullying is not a joke,” that “it is not funny” and “is serious stuff.” She was also scheduled to give presentations there on Wednesday this week.

Her approximately half-hour talk, with a slideshow presentation on a big screen, also highlighted how bystanders to bullying play a role in how the aggression plays out. Some bystanders might encourage the bully or do nothing about it, such as not report it to an adult, and that only adds to the problem, she explained.

She also talked about how forms of exclusion of persons in a school can cause harm by sometimes causing built-up resentment in the excluded person that might lead to violence.

Powell’s presentation style engaged the students, with Powell asking them questions like whether they had witnessed bullying in their school or elsewhere and pressing them to respond. “Raise your hands,” she would say after asking a question, and quickly follow with, “Put your hands down,” so she could fire off another question in a no-nonsense way.

Powell, who handles about 1,000 juvenile cases per year in the Sherburne County Attorney’s Office, said that bullying intervention relies on students reporting bullying incidents.

She also said it is not uncommon that the perpetrators of school violence had at some time been bullied, been picked on or had been excluded from groups at school. She points to a study from the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center. It concludes that 71 percent of 41 school shooting perpetrators during the past 25 years had been victims of bullying.

“The last thing I want is to get a call that someone is running around the school with a weapon,” she said.

Powell told the students to consider their role as observer, asking if they had ever stood up for a kid that was shoved, humiliated or excluded.

Telling the person who is being mean to “knock it off,” or “leave the kid alone” can be helpful “because maybe you will need someone to be your voice sometime,” Powell said. Powell does advise, however, that a student not try to deal with a bully on their own.

Princeton Middle School Assistant Principal Sarah Marxhausen provided a formal definition for bullying: “When someone repeatedly and on purpose says or does mean or hurtful things to another person who has a hard time defending himself or herself.”

Princeton Middle School (grades six through eight) is in its third year of using the nationally accredited Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.

The program fits Sherburne County’s Bullying Intervention Project in that both try to improve behavior among juveniles.

Teasing, taunting, calling names, and physical and verbal abuse are actions that bullies may take to feel superior and make another person feel ashamed, Powell said. But excluding someone from a group is also a form of bullying, Powell added.

In general, boys’ type of bullying is physical, while girls play “mind games” that are also hurtful, Powell went on.

The venues for bullying have increased to where bullies also carry out cyberbullying, meaning online through computers and cellphones and on social networking websites, Powell noted. It could be the spreading of rumors of why someone was gone from school for a period of time or making some comment about a student’s looks, Powell pointed out.

The choices that middle school students make now can have lifetime consequences, Powell said. Powell urged the students to protect themselves by not sharing a lot of personal information on websites, in Internet chat rooms or on social networking websites like Facebook. Don’t get involved in sexting, which is the sending of sexually explicit messages and/or photographs through digital communication, Powell advised.

A boyfriend may tell a girl, “If you love me, you will send me a naked picture of yourself,” which would be the wrong thing to do, Powell said.

“You break up with the boy and he still has your photos,” she said. “That is not a proud moment. If the person really cared about you, they would not be asking for that.”

Powell talked about a case of a boy requesting naked photos of girl and it turned out the boy’s father was a pedophile and the photos were sent around the world.

No one knows where photos will end up, Powell cautioned.

Powell also touched on the subject of physical altercations and advised that if a student has a chance to step back or retreat from a fight, they should take that route.

And if a student hears someone uttering a terroristic threat, they have to tell an adult about it, Powell said.

“You can’t take the chance that it is maybe a joke. Report it.”

Princeton Middle School has a planning room where students can pick up a form to fill out reports on bullying or threats to give to office personnel or to a responsible adult or teacher who will bring the reports to the office.

While bystanders sometimes do not act to protect the victim of bullying or report the incident, they could also make the mistake of encouraging the bully, Powell continued.

One way for a victim to defuse the bully is to agree with what they say so that the victim is not giving the bully the satisfaction of seeing a reaction, Powell advised. She also suggested taking protective action by not sitting in the back of the school bus, for example, where it may be easier to be bullied.

Marxhausen challenged the students to think about ways that they could help prevent bullying in their school.

Marxhausen suggested that if a student is a bystander to acts of bullying, they can step up and be a friend to the victim and express an understanding of their plight.

Nicole Josephes, the middle school’s liaison officer, told the students that she needs the eyes and ears of all the students to help keep track of what is going on in the school.

“Help me do my job,” Josephes said. “There are more of you than there are of me. Help me help you guys. If it doesn’t get reported, we can’t help you.”

Bullying can lead to tragic consequences, Powell noted. She referred to some newspaper stories proving that point. One story detailed the bullying of Tom Trosvik of Ham Lake at a school in Fridley about seven years ago to where he could no longer handle the abuse and took his life.

A story in Nova Scotia chronicled a case of schoolhouse bullying with a twist. It explained how when a ninth-grader who was a new student at a school showed up wearing pink, six to 10 older students mocked him, calling him a homosexual and threatened to beat him up.

A couple seniors at the school decided to defend the victim by encouraging fellow male students through the Internet to show up at the school on a particular day and wear pink tops in support of the ninth-grader. The two seniors bought 75 pink tank tops for fellow students, including the bullying victim, to wear in an act of solidarity. The victims’ supporters also brought a pink basketball and pink material for headbands and arm bands. About half of the school’s 830 students responded by wearing pink.

Powell noted that 10-15 percent of children are estimated  to be regular victims of bullies and that 7-9 percent of children are bullies.

Powell added that bullying is not normal childhood behavior and questioned why anyone  would find it “exciting” to watch someone being bullied.

Powell added that the rate of bullying increases through the elementary school years, peaks during the middle or junior high age and declines during high school. Therefore, intervention is most important during the transition from elementary to middle school, according to Powell.

Powell provided the following profile of a typical victim of bullying: Someone who is anxious, insecure, cautious, vulnerable, passive, younger, suffers from low self esteem, rarely defends self or retaliates, may lack social skills and friends, and tends to be physically weaker than peers. The victim may also want to avoid being in school, may experience increased isolation and may have high levels of depression and suicidal ideation.

Powell’s profile of a bully was: “Someone who is defined by their behavior, has a need to feel powerful, derives satisfaction from inflicting emotional/physical injury repeatedly, has little sense of empathy/compassion, lacks foresight, feels contempt and intolerance, intimidates and dominates, defends actions by reporting provocation, cares not about others’ feelings, has no remorse, is disrespectful toward the opposite sex or different races, enjoys fighting, will not admit fear or mistakes, craves attention, hurts animals, has been taught to strike back physically, has low levels of paternal involvement, has experienced aggressive physical punishment, is defiant, is disrespectful and oppositional towards adults, tends to break school rules and is proud to be a bully.”

Victims of bullying can feel lonely, isolated and exposed, feel humiliation, have social and emotional adjustment problems, be insecure, have sleeplessness, nightmares, tics or nervous habits, have poor appetite and stomach problems, profound rage, have substance abuse, academic problems, loss of self esteem and needs support.

Powell posed the question of whether bullying is a crime and responded by defining disorderly conduct (a misdemeanor) under Minnesota law as: Whenever a person does any of the following in a public or private place, including on a school bus, knowing that it will, or will tend to, alarm, anger or disturb others or provoke an assault or breach of the peace:

–Engages in brawling or fighting.

–Disturbs an assembly or meeting that is not unlawful in its character.

–Engages in offensive, obscene, abusive, boisterous or noisy conduct or in offensive, obscene or abusive language tending to arouse alarm, anger or resentment in others.

Powell also touched on assault in the fifth degree, terroristic threats, and harassment and stalking crime. She mentioned statistics showing a high incidence of bullies having one or more criminal convictions by age 23.

“Take a stand. Be kind,” Powell said.