There is a significant difference between bullying and personal conflict, Dorothy Espelage says.
The professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is currently an expert witness in six suicide cases involving young victims of bullying. She also has devoted 17 years to the study of bullying in schools.
“I want the suicides to quit,” she told the audience at a workshop held Saturday at Southeast High School. “I just want the bullying to stop.”
“Bullying: Keeping a Step Ahead” was the second in a series of annual “IMPACT” sessions sponsored by the Family and Community Engagement Initiative of Springfield Public Schools. The Parent Advisory Council, organized by Superintendent Walter Milton, also sponsors the program.
Espelage said the difference between bullying and “normal conflict” is that there is no conflict when it comes to bullying.
“If there’s a conflict, you can mediate it,” she said. “You don’t mediate bullying. You really just can’t mediate their nastiness.”
Although bullying behavior is complicated, it most commonly involves popular students and athletes targeting peers perceived as being “different,” including students with disabilities or “gender non-conformists.”
Espelage said the latter category includes not only gays and lesbians, but any student whose behavior is not considered normal for his or her gender. An example might be a boy who wants to join his school’s dance team.
She said schools show little tolerance for racially offensive language, but the same cannot be said of intolerance toward gays and lesbians.
“We have not sent the same message about the homophobic language,” she said, adding that offenders include teachers as well as students.
Espelage said it is harder now for students to escape bullying because of the widespread use of social networks, including texting and Facebook posts. She added that “cyberbullying” could be even more devastating.
She said monitoring children’s use of home computers as much as possible should reduce cyberbullying. In addition, parents should have access to their children’s Facebook account or accounts, she said.
“The message we want to send to kids is you can severely affect your academic outcome if you engage in cyberbullying,” Espelage said, adding that more parents are pressing charges against cyberbullies.
Parental accountability for bullying also is vital, according to Espelage. During her years of research and interviews, she said only two parents have admitted to raising a bully.
Espelage was a member of a governor’s task force that recommended ways to reduce bullying in a report submitted March 1. Recommendations included bullying policies at schools, school-wide initiatives to reduce bullying and improvement of existing anti-bullying programs.
John and Tracy Rivera of Springfield said their 12-year-old son, Matthew, has been the victim of bullying since third grade. The Riveras said repeated attempts to resolve the problem resulted in temporary respites at best.
“It stops for a while, but then it picks back up,” Mrs. Rivera said. If the bullying continues, the Riveras said they might resort to home schooling.
Tami McDaniel, a licensed clinical counselor, said she works with both bullies and victims.
McDaniel said bullying often results from jealousy, adding that she has seen children as young as 7 years of age victimized.
“My concern is it’s starting at a much younger age,” she said. “They’re having anxiety problems and some depression because of that.
McDaniel said that schools have to be vigilant because bullies often “fly under the radar,” striking on the playground, in the cafeteria, in hallways and in restrooms.
“Bullying works when it’s kept under wraps and done behind closed doors when teachers aren’t around,” she said.
Milton said the workshop was intended to send a message that bullying would not be tolerated in Springfield schools.
“I think it is a topic that should be at the forefront of many discussions,” Milton said. “We cannot shy away from difficult discussions like this because it’s not going to go away, and we have to be willing to stand up and deal with it.”
Theresa Schieffer can be reached through metro desk at 788-1519.