The old school playground bullies are still out there, pushing around kids in the sand box, but they are way out-numbered in the digital age.
“The cyber stuff — texting, social media — it’s a different animal, but it has similar characteristics,” said Connie Ernsberger, director of college and guidance counseling at Gulliver Schools in Pinecrest. “It’s so fast and so anonymous.”
But Ernsberger and other South Florida experts say the key to stopping bullying of any sort remains the same: Victims and witnesses have to be taught to speak up. School administrators, much more knowledgeable about the array of negative effects of bullying, long ago stopped shrugging off the behavior when they hear about it.
“The one key piece is that bullying will not be tolerated,” said Deborah Montilla, district director of student services for Miami-Dade schools.
Miami-Dade has developed extensive programs and training to deal with bullying, broadly defined to include teasing, social exclusion, stalking, destruction of property, cyberbullying and other forms of harassment.
The school district’s policy, available on its website, addressees the consequences of bullying, how to report it, as well as intervention and counseling procedures. Guidance and TRUST (To Reach Ultimate Success Together) counselors make classroom visits, morning announcements offer bullying prevention tips and specialized posters for elementary, middle and high schools hang on the walls.
“If we can help students understand the importance of healthy relationships, they’ll be more successful in school,” Montilla said.
One big lesson: If students know bullying is happening, they have to be brave enough to tell a trusted adult.
“We don’t want anything to escalate,” she said. “We can’t help if we don’t know. We want students to feel comfortable.”
Nationally, about 70 percent of young people report they’ve seen bullying occur in their schools. But when bystanders step in, physical bullying stops within 10 seconds nealry 60 percent of the time, according to StopBullying.gov.
Some tell-tale signs of bullying include increased nightmares, a change in grades, coming home hungry and asking for additional lunch money. Montilla says it’s important not to blame children for that kind of behavior or to tell them to respond in kind.
“Don’t tell them to toughen up,” she said.
Instead, get the school involved.
“Intervention works,” said Ernsberger of Gulliver, which like Miami-Dade public schools, has a zero-tolerance policy. “If we hear about it, we’ll act on it.”
Gulliver disciplines the bully, with punishment depending on the behavior, and provides ongoing counseling support.
Bullying tends to peak in middle school and students moving up grades in the same school or with the same friends are less likely to have problems in high school, she said.
“If they’ve been a part of Gulliver, they’ll feel like leaders on campus,” she said. “By the time they get to high school, they’ve had experience with peer pressure and positive social interactions.”
To prevent bullying, school counselors meet with incoming ninth graders, she said. At Gulliver, students are assigned to a counselor who they regularly meet with one-on-one.
Gulliver guidance counselor Adriana Muñoz said communication and trust are key to preventing bullying.
“When hormones start kicking in, it’s harder to pick up signs,” said Muñoz, who is a psychologist. Children become more private during middle school, especially with increased access to technology.
“It starts with a mean text or a mean comment on social media,” she said, “and it begins to escalate.”
Her advice to parents and children? “A lot of dialogue. You would be amazed at how many teachable moments there are — a subtle joke on TV, making fun of someone. Don’t wait until something happens to talk about it.”
Muñoz said the transition from elementary school to middle school is also hard on parents.
“You go from when they’re younger and they see you as a hero to when they think you don’t know them. Behavior changes,” she said. “Middle school is a tough age. It’s a time where they’re leaving their childhood and entering adolescence.”
Still, setting boundaries for kids is important, Muñoz said.
“We are a yes generation. You can find a balance. You have to have the self control to say that you’re looking for things that would be harmful to them,” she said.
With time, kids mature out of bullying situations.
Josefina Estrella, school counselor at Key Biscayne K-8 Center, said she works a lot with improving self confidence and self esteem to manage bullying situations.
“We do see a lot of name-calling. We have children from many different countries. We have to work a lot with understanding and approaching differences.”
Teachers and counselors begin teaching “proper communication” in kindergarten.
“We try to stay away from stigmatizing children as bullies because that doesn’t help,” she said.
Key Biscayne K-8 Center is a “No Place For Hate” school, as are others in the district. The school has worked with the Anti-Defamation League to sign anti-bullying pledges, put on activities and train students as “peace ambassadors.”
“Most of the time, teasing and other situations that make it to bullying happen outside of adult supervision,” Estrella said.
When they do happen, though, counselors and staff emphasize the importance of conflict resolution.
“It teaches them to solve problems, which builds self confidence,” she said. “I always give them the chance to approach the situation themselves.
“If the child or parent is concerned about a bullying situation, it’s important to talk to the school or an adult as soon as possible. The earlier we see the problem, the less serious it could be.”