Jenny Kirk, Marshall Independent
Editor’s note: This is the ninth of a series of stories that run periodically concerning the topic of bullying in our communities.
MARSHALL – Some say it takes a village to raise a child.
Others say it will take a village to end the cycle of bullying and the stigma of speaking up and seeking help when it’s needed.
With the recent awareness of bullying and mental health issues facing adolescents and all the local resources available to bullies and victims of bullying, the epidemic in our schools should begin to decrease.
But will it?
Some believe that change will start to happen, one step at a time, if everyone in the community continues working toward a better future for children.
“It takes all of us to make a difference,” said Bill Swope, who spent 27 years as an elementary principal at Marshall Public Schools. “Our families are too busy. Kids don’t sit down at the supper table anymore. They’re here and there. There’s also a change in education and a decay in respect, with adults, too. We don’t take time to listen and care about each other anymore. Society is moving too fast.”
Swope is the executive director for Pride in the Tiger Foundation, which recently sponsored an anti-bullying event – Youth Frontiers – for Marshall fifth- and seventh-graders. The Marshall PTC also donated funds, while the Marshall YMCA waived its fee to use the multi-purpose room.
“Youth Frontiers is helping kids act with moral courage,” Swope said. “It’s just huge. It teaches kids to stand up for others who are being picked on.”
The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) says bullying is a serious problem, not only for students who are bullied, but for the bullies, and the students and adults who witness the acts. Like the MDE, which helps schools develop programming, curriculum and intervention practices, Youth Frontiers advocates for building cultures of respect in schools.
“Youth Frontiers is well worth the pursuit for our young people,” Marshall Middle School principal Mary Kay Thomas said in a grant application to Pride in the Tiger. “Youth Frontiers vision is ‘to change the way young people treat each other in every hallway, lunch line and classroom of every school in American so that today’s young people can make tomorrow’s world better.'”
Youth Frontiers was founded in 1987 by Joe Cavanaugh, who believed that students and educators deserved to “thrive emotionally, socially and therefore, academically.”
Said Cavanaugh: “We are not succeeding as a society if our children receive and ‘A’ in math…and an ‘F’ in life.”
The organization has 34 fulltime and part-time employees who delivered 648 retreats in the 2010-11 school year and is expected to reach 90,000 students and educators at 680 retreats this year. Youth Frontiers offers age-appropriate retreats, which include kindness, courage, respect, responsibility and wisdom.
“I think the kids take a lot of it in,” said Marshall Middle School social worker Heather Bigler, who helps coordinate the event. “We’ve done follow-up in the classrooms. The fifth-grade focused on the kindness boomerang. In order to catch kindness, you have to throw it out there.”
MMS students partnered with Tracy Area Public School and Murray County Central students at the 2011 fall retreats. The previous year, the three schools collaborated by utilizing an integration grant, which was not part of the budget this year.
“We believe the retreats can help stimulate some of the things we want to happen within the building,” Thomas said. “It’s nice that now all the kids in the (MMS) building have experienced one or the other of the Youth Frontiers retreats.”
Youth Frontiers also has a retreat designated for educators and staff called “Honor,” which Thomas said was used six years ago when the district moved from the junior high site to the middle school building.
As part of the middle school concept, Thomas said that students and teachers also try to build relationships during the 30-minute advisories held every day except for Wednesday.
Other area schools taking advantage of Youth Frontiers retreats are Canby, Holy Redeemer in Marshall and Dawson-Boyd.
While most school districts have their own policies put in place for handling student issues, whether it is bullying, situational or mental health problems, they’re also likely to have an inner support system. At Marshall High School, nurse Deb Herrmann and counselors Shirley Greenfield and Sue Bowen work together to try to meet the students’ needs.
“We all work very closely,” Herrmann said. “On early out Wednesdays, we try to do a lot of things so we’re all on board and working together.”
Some people don’t understand, Herrmann said, that schools do a lot of things to help students be successful.
“We try to look at services to help the kids, whether it’s because their parents are going through a divorce or have just lost a family member,” Herrmann said. “Some might say we’re not doing anything, but we can’t tell people what our students are doing. We have to be confidential, so people might not think we’re doing anything. But we’re referring kids to a variety of services in town.”
Herrmann said Prairie Home Hospice has come in, free of charge, to help with grieving processes. Beginning this past fall, Marshall Schools also contracted with Greater MN Family Services (507-537-6920 ext 1028), which partners with school districts across Minnesota, providing mental health services in the school setting. In 20 years, the service has grown from 15 employees to 150, offering services in 34 counties, including Lyon, Lincoln, Murray and Yellow Medicine.
Families still have to make the appointment and are billed for the service. Families also make the decision about which vendor service they’d like to use.
One of the most difficult aspects for school workers is identifying problems, especially getting to the real root of the issue.
“There are so many different things that affect students,” Herrmann said. “Kids can come in with health issues, like headaches and stomachaches and don’t identify that they’re mental issues. They don’t realize that the brain affects how your body is feeling.”
Many times, perhaps because of the stigma attached, students just do not seek help.
“Some self-medicate, with alcohol or marijuana, but in the end, it doesn’t really help,” Herrmann said. “We take care of things like diabetes, so why aren’t we willing to take the Paxil or Prozac to get the brain chemical imbalance fixed? It can be amazing when someone gets the right diagnosis, the right medication and the right dose to help them be successful.”
Herrmann also pointed out that bullies are vulnerable, too.
“Roles change every day,” she said. “We might do all roles, depending on the mix of things. There are so many things that come into play.”
Sparked by the 2008 suicide of Marshall student Evan Carrow, “Born To Be Alive,” an adult facilitated, student-run organization, aids in promoting depression awareness and suicide prevention. For two years, Marshall Schools have also done a Teen Screen to help identify students at risk.
“It’s a screening tool, but not a diagnostic one,” Herrmann said. “It’s not just for mental health. It also picks up drug abuse and opens up communication. It’s all kept separate, not in the kids’ records. We use it to make referrals if needed.”
MHS students can also take an elective class that stresses relationship skills.
“Students learn about bullying, drugs, family situations, how to deal with people and how to take responsibility for themselves,” Herrmann said. “It has a ‘I can change me, but I can’t change anyone else’ focus.”
Gloria Sabin, clinical director at Western Mental Health Center in Marshall (507-337-4948), said that she’s noticed that clients are getting younger, so more programs have been put in place in response.
“We’ve just added the 0-5 program to primarily address younger children,” Sabin said. “We also have another program that is new, which is promoted by the Department of Human Services. It’s a children’s therapeutic support and services, teaching skills to kids, like anger management, social skills, conflict resolution, how to quell boredom and lots of other areas.”
WMHC also counsels in emotional education, taking responsibility, adjusting to change, empathy building, leisure recreation, problem solving skills, friendships, boundaries and works with depression, anxiety and behavior problems.
“We teach children how to pay attention to symptoms and respond, rather than react,” Sabin said
Thanks to a grant Sabin wrote, WMHC has also had a mobile children’s crisis service for the past four years.
“The three steps of the mobile service is assessment, intervention and then stabilization,” Sabin said. “Our goal is to reduce out-of-home placement. Then we refer to other services as needed.”
Other services available in the area are: religious counseling (Lutheran Social Services 320-235-5411, Catholic Charities 507-376-9757), independent counseling (Jim Horgan and Geri Johnson 507-929-0733), centers for counseling (Christine Zych of Southwest Psychological Services 507-476-5462, University Psychiatry Associates Out Patient Clinic (Avera) 507-337-2923) and drug/alcohol counseling (Project Turnabout Adolescent Services 507-532-3008).
In the future, Southwest Health and Human Services is looking to implement “circle” programs, which has roots in the traditional justice of American Indian cultures, and is utilized by bringing different members of a community together to resolve disputes.
Four years ago, counselor Kim Sanow created L.O.L! (Laugh Out Loud) Clubs and summer camps to support girls in the Marshall area. Sanow combines fun activities with education, teaching girls about relational bullying, cyberbullying, friendships, boundaries, conflict resolution and self-awareness.
“It’s a safe place for girls to come and maybe make some new friends, learn how to be a better friend or find better friends,” Sanow said. “It’s about making better choices and being empowered.”
Based on statistics, Sanow said that 80 percent of those initiating relational aggression behaviors learned it from their environment and media.
“It’s not only happening in our middle school, it keeps going on in the workplace,” Sanow said. “We need to do something in our culture and not base our values on what the TV and media have taught us. We need to get after it.”
Many times, Sanow said, girls don’t realize how much their non-verbal actions, such as eye rolling or ignoring someone, can hurt others.
“During group discussions, it can truly be a time of healing, and a time where bullies, targets, by-standers and victims can recognize their role or roles in relational bullying and decide to make changes,” Sanow said.
Conflicts can arise in countless activities that students are involved in, including sports, 4-H and church clubs.
Thomas has seen friendships strained because of select athletes getting brought up to a higher-than-grade-level squad in basketball or volleyball.
“We want to encourage and support those kids who have those opportunities,” she said. “But the kids who stay at the grade level, that’s when we see the envy, jealousy and meanness come out of them and directed at a child who has that opportunity.”
It makes for a really difficult situation within the whole culture of the building, Thomas said, so parents may need to be involved.
Sanow recalled a recent incident where a new high school girl came to Marshall and felt targeted by her new team.
“The sophomore class teases a lot and they jab at each other,” Sanow said. “I’m not sure if the kids realized they were crossing the line. It becomes a target situation when it’s intentional to hurt someone.”
Roughly 30 girls participate in each of the L.O.L! Clubs offered. This year, Sanow is hopeful that all of the girls will be able to attend free of charge because of its supporters. L.O.L! Club is funded by House of Hope, United Way of Southwest Minnesota and the Evan Carrow Foundation.
While schools are embedding anti-bullying education into their curriculum at increasing rates, area businesses are also responding to the cause. A number of communities – Lake Benton, Russell-Tyler-Ruthton, Minneota, Taunton, Ghent and Marshall – recently sponsored a book for all 6-year-olds in their area schools, including public, private and homeschooled children.
“My Favorite Book” has a strong anti-bullying message and stresses positive character-building traits. Also included in the book is a parent guide which explains the values along with suggested topics for family discussion.
“My Favorite Book” is being distributed by The Ambassador Company to thousands of children statewide this year.”
“It all fits in with bullying and treating others with respect,” Swope said. “It’s an everyday occurrence we have to keep in front of kids, especially with all the texting and cyberbullying there is.”
Growing up in the Technology Age can be difficult for adolescents, especially when they are dealing with a number of physical, emotional and psychological changes. While the bullying of yesterday typically ceased once students left the school building, today’s world provides a 24/7 opportunity to spring a relentless attack on others.
So who is monitoring the usage? Statistics and surveys suggest that the best solution for safe Internet and phone usage is through parental awareness and vigilance.
“Technology can be a great provision and provide opportunities for kids, but at the same time, we need to teach, not just as schools, but as parents,” Thomas said. “We need to teach our kids everything about it, the ins and outs and the responsibility and obligations that come with the privileges of that technology.”
Counselor Fay Prairie, who began Prairie Perspectives as a way to reach others about cyberbullying/bullying/relationships/communication/suicide/emotional IQ, said that recent research found that cyberbullying – which is using technology such as email, text messaging or online sites to bully – does not taper off in high school.
“Cyberbullying is strongest in the middle school, but it does continue into high school,” she said. “It doesn’t taper off like face-to-face bullying does.”
According to statistics, Prairie found that 76 percent of parents do not have rules about what their kids can do online, though 65 percent of parents believe their kids do things online that the kids wouldn’t want their parents to know about.
Prairie pointed out that some of the ways kids cyberbully are: flaming (sending mean messages back and forth), harassment (repeatedly sending someone mean messages), cyber-stalking (harassment, but a serious threat to someone’s life), denigration (put downs, name-calling), impersonation (pretending to be someone else online), outing and trickery (tricking someone into giving out private information or pictures and then posting it online) and exclusion (intentionally leaving someone out to hurt them).
There have even been cases reported of “Internet Trolls,” who mock the dead, often a suicide victim they know, by hijacking their memorial pages.
Fortunately, there are a number of resources available to parents who want to be informed and are concerned about their child’s safety, including the MDE site which has a link to a dozen websites regarding bullying/cyberbullying and safety.