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Middle school bullying big trouble

Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series about bullying in local schools.

WORTHINGTON -- Bullying at the middle school level is an issue that could go on for days and still have time leftover to deliver a heartbreaking social snub. And while administrators at Worthington Middle School say the problem may not be any bigger than usual at their school, guiding students away from bullying behavior is still a challenge.

"Day in and day out we function pretty well but it's something we definitely have to pay attention to," said WMS principal Clete Lipetzky. "At this age group, schooling is a lot about socialization yet, and we also need to teach them to the three Rs. But they can't do much learning if they're upset with their relationships with parents or peers, or they're not happy with themselves."

And the causes of bullying vary depending on who you ask.

"A lot of homes do a good job of nurturing and helping kids grow up, but a lot kids aren't getting the support the need at home, so kids get confused, and when they're confused, they do silly things," Lipetzky continued. "Some people are just plagued with conflicts with peers, and others never have a problem. You say, well, why is this? Some kids are more secure, some kids are respectful of others, some are insecure and aggressive, not too well socialized."

WMS Counselor Tracy Johnson, who works with students on both sides of the bullying equation, listed other possible causes.

"Sometimes it's that they have been victims themselves of bullying, sometimes it's a jealousy issue, they want to look cool in front of their friends, they want to fit in, it makes them feel better to put somebody else down," she said.

Several students interviewed said earning good grades can also make someone a target.

"Sometimes (bullies) will tell them to do (the bully's) assignments, and if the smart person says no, they will bully them by pushing them or bothering them for the rest of the day," said sixth-grader Dulce Chacon.

Robin Medill, who works with emotional/behavioral disorder students at WMS, said bullying can simply be rude behavior that occurs because students are in a hurry or aren't thinking about their actions.

"You don't see kids out there actively going out to be mean, you see things just happening," she said, referring to slamming other's lockers shut or bumping into others during passing time.

However, author and storyteller Kevin Strauss, who presented a Bully Blockers program at WMS earlier this month, said there may be one thing that isn't causing bullying at WMS.

"The easy targets are the ones that are different than other kids. At schools without a lot of diversity, there are often a few kids you can point out, but at schools like Worthington that have a very diverse population, that's less of an issue," he said. "You see fewer instances of someone being singled out because of their differences."

Larry Leovan, a peer mediator and eighth-grader at the middle school, said some bullies are trying to get a laugh, while some appear to pick on others for no reason at all.

"My theory is every kid is looking for their place in this building, and maybe (bullying) is how they're getting there," Medill said.

Whatever the cause, area educators are often able to pinpoint who's doing what when it comes to bullying. And it's not always who -- or what -- you might think.

"A lot of the stories you hear about, you hear the ones who are bullying are the rich guys who's all that and, baloney. You do have your elite group ... but I don't see them being nasty. The groups that are mean, they're not what you would picture, they could be from all over town," said Medill, adding that WMS is not immune from the current "hot trend" of girl bullying, especially as girls start to see each other as competition for the dating scene.

"We have a real group of mean girls in this building. They would be the ones who would cyber bully. ... They've called and threatened (each other) right down to their parents doing the same thing. They've called each other's houses and said horrible things to each other," she said.

"The girls have been a little more aggressive than the guys," Lipetzky said, "And they also don't get over things as quickly as guys do, generally speaking."

Medill said she's also concerned about the group bullying that seems to have pervaded the hallways of WMS.

"We've had groups of 40 that would walk just in a big glob. And that's intimidating, especially when they're eighth-graders here in a sixth-grade hallway. They're five across, you're not getting by them and they don't move. They don't move for teachers."

She said the pack mentality can extend into clothing, shaved eyebrows, even the wearing of -- and she says this has decreased dramatically from a decade ago -- gang or gang wannabe colors and symbols.

"Are these things trying to intimidate? Maybe. If they're conceived to be with a gang or an older group that gives them power," she said.

Physical violence on school grounds is rare, but administrators and teachers are working to reduce bullying in all its forms.

"They get big bodies, and sometimes their emotions don't match them. When they get big, they can start to hurt each other a lot more than when they're little," Lipetzky said. "Part of the challenge is to help them grow up. The community needs to see how we're trying to work here. They need to know that we're certainly aware of it."

To learn more about what District 518 is doing to reducing bullying in its schools, see Friday's Daily Globe.