“Just because you expel the bully, that doesn’t mean the bullying stops.” Curtis nelson, assistant district attorney, head of juvenile services
Deja Monet Stepter wanted everybody to know that one of her friends was being bullied in school.
So Stepter, an 11-year-old sixth-grade student at Northwestern Middle School, wrote a book called “Erica D. Mayfield, The Bully,” in which the main character, Erica Mayfield, is the subject of taunting and teasing by fellow students.
“I wrote that book for kids to see it’s not right to bully people,” Stepter said.
Raising awareness about bullying was the focus of a panel discussion Saturday morning during meetings for the Louisiana Council on Human Relations and the Baton Rouge Council on Human Relations at Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church on Scenic Highway.
Stepter read excerpts from her book during the forum.
“She has to make a decision to either speak up for herself or be bullied by these girls,” Stepter read aloud. “Hopefully, Erica makes the right choice.”
Panelists discussed ways to spot bullying, whether obvious or subtle, and how to address it when it happens.
“We have a real problem in this community, in this neighborhood — in this state, really — doing the things that we need to do,” said Joe Dennis, the Louisiana Council on Human Relations president.
State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, cited as an example of bullying problems in Louisiana the case of Tesa Middlebrook, a 17-year-old Pointe Coupee Central High School student who hanged herself in March because, her relatives have said, she was a victim of persistent bullying.
Middlebrook’s family has sued Pointe Coupee Central and Advance Baton Rouge, its parent organization, saying school administrators knew about the bullying but failed to protect her.
The Legislature enacted legislation in this year’s session to toughen rules against bullying in public schools. The new law defines bullying, ways to report it and sets a time-line for school administrators to respond to it or face penalties.
“We’re hoping that the law we have in place will be able to generate some kind of justice for kids who are getting bullied at school,” said Smith, who sponsored an anti-bullying bill this session. Her bill did not pass, but another one did.
Gwynn Shamlin, a specialist on bullying issues for “I Care,” a substance abuse and violence prevention program for students, defined bullying as a repeated, intentional behavior a bully uses to establish a feeling of power.
Shamlin said school leaders and parents must determine if the behavior fits within those parameters. If so, it needs to be addressed in a specific way.
“The way you intervene on a bullying situation is very different from how you intervene in just a regular conflict,” Shamlin said.
Smith said bullying can come in the form of harassment or intimidation just for the way someone looks.
“It can be any aspect of someone saying they don’t like you,” Smith said.
East Baton Rouge Parish Juvenile Court Judge Pamela Taylor Johnson said tangible signs of bullying abuse include such things as children losing excitement about going to school, slipping grades or changes in dress habits to fit in.
“You have to watch the children, not only as a parent, but also as an administrator, as a teacher,” Johnson said.
Curtis Nelson, an assistant district attorney in charge of the office’s juvenile services, said bullying isn’t limited to school grounds anymore because it can reach wider audiences via cellphones or social media.
“Just because you expel the bully, that doesn’t mean the bullying stops,” Nelson said.
Smith said schoolteachers and administrators can’t write off singular bullying incidents as simple teasing.
“When you look at a pattern of behavior, then it may have gone too far,” she said.
Nelson said parents must be vigilant in observing possible bullying symptoms in their children.
However, he also said his office would, in “egregious” cases, pursue charges against an entire group that took part in the bullying and not just the ringleader.
Johnson emphasized that written, formal reports must be filed when persistent bullying occurs.
“It’s always better to put things in writing,” she said.