We Need to Talk

Crumpled bits of paper flew through the air, littering the hallway with student opin­ions. It was nearing the end of homeroom, and Señor Espar­za’s class was just finishing an in-class activity on bullying. Heading back to the classroom, the students prepared to read each other’s papers. Each held an anonymous opinion about bullying at Wauwatosa West. Comments ranged from why kids are bullied, to reactions about bullying occurrences at school. And they were not alone in this endeavor. In classrooms throughout West hundreds of kids were doing the same, attempting to cre­ate a dialogue about bullying.

This homeroom was only the latest response to a long line of tragic incidents, both at Wauwatosa West and through­out the nation. Like any school, West expects its share of bullying incidents. “You take people who are young, trying to figure out who they are and you throw them all together,” said Ms. Keppler, West Social Studies teacher and advisor to C.R.A.S.H. “It’s a recipe for disaster”.
Recent events, however, have surpassed general ha­rassment problems. Last November, three male stu­dents of Wauwatosa West attacked a freshman on his way home from school. The attack brought national me­dia attention, and cameras swooped down upon West High school. On the heels of yet another bullying home­room, the incident spurred ad­ministration to tackle the is­sue again. “When the student body starts talking, it builds a momentum,” explained Mr. Zietlow, a West Social Stud­ies teacher in charge of the bullying homerooms. “It’s in the minds of people; they know that this is important and we’re not accepting those kinds of behavior anymore.”

West Administration had another incentive to carry out these homerooms: state law. On May 12, 2010, the Wisconsin State Legisla­ture passed Senate Bill 154. This bill mandated that each school district have some kind awareness program, as well as a formal policy relat­ing to bullying. Wisconsin is the 43rd of 45 states to pass such legislation into law.

Both students and teach­ers are being targeted in at­tempts to increase awareness. Mrs. Patton, an associate principal at West, spoke of staff outreach. “I’m going to be doing this presentation on bullying with a video from the American Tolerance Society, giving statistical data and signs of bullying so we can be more proactive in identify­ing it right away,” she said.

High profile instances aside, bullying is often hard for teachers and parents to identify. “A lot of technol­ogy has changed bullying,” Ms. Keppler explained, “ and adults and society don’t nec­essarily know how to respond to it yet”. Mrs. Patton sus­pected many instances oc­curred that the school would never know about. “Kids don’t come into school and say hey—this is what hap­pened on facebook,” she said.

Many high school students are reluctant to get help. “High schoolers have this mentality: I’m in high school and should be able to deal with my own problems,” ex­plained Senior Alexandra Poli. Students want to be seen as adults, to deal with the prob­lem by themselves. Though the best way to stop bullying is to report it, many victims stay away from the guidance office. “The Guidance counselors see quite a bit of it, but I’m willing to bet it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” asserted Brian Hoffman, a guidance counselor at west. “A lot of kids are intimidated to the point where they’re afraid that if they say some­thing it’s just go­ing to get worse”.

Na­tional statistics only serve to bolster these ideas. The 2009 Indicators of School Crime and Safety collected sta­tistics from a variety of stud­ies, finding that only about a third of actual bullying in­stances are reported. This re­port is created yearly in a joint effort by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and National Cen­ter for Education Statistics.

So the goal remains to en­courage students to speak out and about bullying. One strat­egy is to get students talking about each other’s problems instead of self-consciously voicing their own. For Leah Rogers, a sophomore at West, homeroom paper-throwing successfully accomplished this task. “You’re not talking about yourself, but others, so it’s less uncomfortable,” she explained. Many students already know that bullying is wrong, but not understand the effect that bullying has on it’s vic­tims. “My fear is not for the kid who comes in upset but for the kid that is so upset they want to take their own life or someone else’s,” Mrs. Pat­ton disclosed. The homerooms are meant to make students aware of this, and thus en­courage them to stand up for the victims of bullying. “There is a fine line between what you believe and what you are will­ing to go out and do,” said Mr. Zietlow, “You have to get peo­ple comfortable standing up for what is right”.