Back to School: Books, Backpacks…and Bullies?

Holly T. Meginniss, MSW, LSWAIC

A few years ago, there was this great commercial by a national office supply chain that I loved. It was a Dad dancing down the aisles to the strains of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” a traditional Christmas tune. As Dad is gleefully tossing pens, pencils, notebooks and all the things needed to start school, the camera pans away to two school-aged children who are decidedly not amused. Their furrowed brows and grumpy faces say all that needs to be said about how they feel about the “Time of the Year.”

While we may lament and secretly be happy that our children are returning back to school soon, there are other things that are important to do in order to deal with some of the difficulties that can come with returning to schools, particularly dealing with bullies. Bullying is something that can overwhelm a child quickly once it begins; embarrassment and/or fear can keep them from reaching out to adults or school staff in order to deal with the situation. Sometimes adults have a difficult time seeing the difficulties through the child’s perspective; the adult experience and wisdom brings about the tendency for us to say “this too shall pass,” or “it’s no big deal.” Stories have already begun to appear on news outlets and social media of children who have taken their lives in an impulsive action to relieve their immediate pain, only to bring about permanent and devastating results.

Bullying has become a much less tolerable behavior in most school districts. But as the parent, how do you advocate for your child to be certain that a culture of bullying is not being tolerated at your child’s school? Many parents don’t know that there are things you can do, both to prepare your child to know what to do if they are bullied, and what rights your child has in the school if they become the target of a bully.

  • Teach your child that they need to speak up, and that you will listen:  Many children are initially afraid of telling their parents about being bullied at school, often because they are not sure how their parents will react. Let your child know what you want them to do if someone attempts to bully them, including on social media. Having a specific plan on how it will be handled so they are able to know that help is going to be there for them.
  • Make yourself aware of the school’s and the school district’s policy on bullying: In Washington State, there is a law that specifically addresses Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying (HIB) in public schools. There are specific processes that are required to take place when a bullying complaint has been made at a school, and each district in Washington State is required to have a compliance officer who is responsible for assuring that the schools in a district are meeting their requirements. This is handled in Washington State by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). It is important that as parents, you are familiar with the bullying procedures in your district, and how you can contact the compliance officer if you are not getting the support your child needs. Here is a link to the OSPI website page on the HIB law; this includes information for parents and loved ones of children who are bullied http://www.k12.wa.us/SafetyCenter/BullyingHarassment/default.aspx
  • Know who your child is hanging out with, in person and online. As children are getting older, more and more of their social life is conducted on social media. It is important that as parents you know what is happening. I always recommend that parents have the passwords to all accounts that a child has. When dealing with bullying in teens, it is often not relegated to the school, but also happening on social media where disparaging words and deeds are seen by the cyber universe.
  • Get involved in school. In today’s world of technology, it’s important for parents to take advantage of opportunities to know what is going on at school. Many districts who have digitized grade keeping systems make access available to parents as well. Become familiar with how the program in your district works, and check grades frequently. Sometimes suddenly slipping grades are a strong indication that something is going on in the child’s life that is keeping them from succeeding at school.

Children who bully are also in pain; they are at an extreme where their anger and frustration is being expressed in unhealthy and unacceptable ways. There is no excuse for bullying anyone; children who express bullying behavior can often be helped with counseling to resolve their emotional issues. Additionally, children who are being bullied may feel so overwhelmed that they see no way to feel better without hurting themselves by self-injury, or in the ultimate act of pain relief, suicide.

There is help. I am a Mental Health Professional with a Master’s Degree in Social work who specializes in child, adolescent, and family therapy. If you are looking for someone to work with your child and/or family, I have openings that are convenient for children and families. We accept most major insurance plans, including Medicaid. Please give Healthy Counseling Center at 509-466-6632 to schedule an appointment.