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Bullying in schools through the eyes of teens

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Bullying discussion
St. Louis Park High School junior Grace Pastoor raises her hand to speak at the St. Louis Park Library in St. Louis Park, Minn. Thursday, May 5, 2011. Pastoor, who was interviewing fellow students about their experiences with bullying, said she has been bullied for the way she looks.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

by Grace Pastoor, for Minnesota Public Radio

St. Paul — A Minnesota Public Radio News investigation looked at bullying in the state and what state law and school policies can do to prevent it. To paint an accurate picture of bullying, we wanted to also get the perspective of teens. 

Grace Pastoor, a junior at St. Louis Park Senior High, interviewed students about how they see bullying and whether they think adults can do anything about it.

 WHAT TEENS SAY ABOUT BULLYING    

I've heard a lot of adults and experts offer their theories on bullying, but I hardly ever hear teens giving their side of the story. So, I wanted to find out what they think of the bullying problem. 

Like most schools, St. Louis Park sees its share of bullying, but nothing above the ordinary. I started by asking students to meet me after school to tell me about their experiences.  Fahima Adan is a junior who's originally from Somalia. Most days she wears a head scarf, but she told me about the day she wore a veil called a niqab that showed only her eyes.

"I missed it, you know?  I never seen people wear it since I came here," Adan said. "So I just [wore] it to see how I would look on it. And this guy was like, 'terrorist, get out of this country! Are you trying to bomb us or whatnot.' And it was so sad.  I can not even harm a fly."

Adan  said she didn't respond to his ignorance.

"I'm not a terrorist. So what would I care, you know?" she said.

Bullying discussion
St. Louis Park High School students, from left, Ian Grinde, junior, Arden Chrusciel, freshman, and Nathan Schneider, senior, discuss their experiences with bullying at the St. Louis Park Library in St. Louis Park, Minn. Thursday, May 5, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Fahima Adan was able to shrug it off, but not all kids are that resilient.

Nathan Schneider is a senior who was bullied in his freshman year.  He described himself as "kind of the short, odd kid" that sat alone. He said he was known as an outcast and an easy mark for people to pick on, and one day when remembers things got particularly vicious in his science class. 

"I remember walking into a science class and immediately people shouting, 'Nathan, be quiet. Nobody wants to hear what you're saying.' And I hadn't even said anything," Schneider said.

Schneider said he struggled with depression, and bullying definitely dragged him down. He knows from personal experience why kids who are bullied might not defend themselves.

"I think a lot of the time, people who don't stand up for themselves maybe can't," he said. "They have some sort of self-esteem issue that says 'I don't deserve for this to stop ... I am worthless, what they're saying is right, I do deserve all this bullying.'"

 INSIDE THE MIND OF A BULLY

Many kids were willing to talk about being bullied, but of the 13 kids I approached for an interview, only one agreed to talk about what it was like to be the bully. Junior Ian Grinde admits that he was the bully on the school bus when he was in 4th grade. 

Grinde told a story of blocking the seats from a kid on the bus that he described as "a bit different" and that no one liked to sit next to.

"And then he wouldn't have a seat and then he'd be really upset and then we'd giggle about it. That was sort of how it went for the whole year," Grinde said.

Grinde doesn't make any excuses for what he did. He said he was aware of what he was doing and now wishes he hadn't done it.

"I regret it just because he is a bit, you know, different. So I feel bad about that.  I've apologized to him before because it was pretty stupid," he said.

Would other students stepping in have helped in that situation? Grinde said there's definitely a right way and wrong way to intervene. He said  treating the victim as somone who's weak and in need of defense  instead of as an equal,  doesn't really help. 

"It just reinforces the message that they are a lesser being that they have to stand up for," he said.  Grinde said it's better to stick up for someone by saying "Hey, I've got your back."

Although my generation is known for cyber-bullying, a lot of the bullying stories kids told me happened on the school bus. It's another place that's minimally supervised by adults. Freshman Arden Crusciel saw other kids trying to prevent a boy from sitting with them, so he stood up for him.

"I just kept letting him sit in my spot and everyone would ask, 'why are you letting him sit with you?'" Crusciel said.

Crusciel said he asked: "Why do you care?" He said eventually they started to push the kid around and Crusciel decided to step in.

"Maybe  pushed them into some water, maybe   shoved someone into a tree, maybe tripped them in the hallway, so they kind of just stopped after that," he said.

Shoving someone into a tree isn't embraced by researchers, but stepping in verbally can make a difference. Canadian researchers found that peer intervention will stop bullying within 10 seconds, two-thirds of the time.

 PUNISHING BULLIES

While verbal defense is often the ideal way to put a stop to bullying, Crusciel, Schneider and Grinde all agree that physical force is sometimes necessary. Schools, however, don't take that stance. 

Schneider, the boy who was bullied during his freshman year, thinks the school's policy on self defense promotes giving up. He said that if somebody attacks you on school grounds, you are not allowed to physically defend yourself at all.

"Whatever they're doing to you, you cannot fight back, cannot retaliate, cannot defend yourself at all. Otherwise you get in just as much trouble," Schneider said.

Consequences for bullying at my school range from so-called "positive behavioral interventions" to suspension or expulsion. But Grinde, the reformed bully, would like to give other bullies a taste of their own medicine: shame.

"Kids hate being embarrassed," Grinde said. "They hate being outcast." He said if the punishment is a 3-day suspension, it's not a big deal.

"I've been suspended, big whoop. I  stay  home and  I eat  chocolate cheerios. I don't feel any 'badness,'" he  said.

Grinde said that instead, if the punishment was to sit in a special little room when the other kids go out to play, or every time there's a field trip and  they had to explain why  they couldn't  go on the field trip, he feels that would be something that would work.

"The kings of the social cliques — that sort of person who every time they say something dim-witted with the half a neuron in their brain, everyone around them goes 'giggle giggle giggle' because they're the biggest — kids like that are the ones that need the social shaming because they're usually the ones shaming others," said Grinde.

According to the students I interviewed, most adults don't seem to be on top of bullying. Too often, students think teachers don't notice it, and kids often don't tell their parents about being bullied until long after the fact.

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Grace Pastoor is a junior at St. Louis Park Senior High and part of ThreeSixty Journalism, a youth journalism program at the University of St. Thomas.