Prevention pays off for halting bullying in Keizer

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Of the Keizertimes

Every time school counselor Michelle Mills discusses bullying with students or parents, the number of reported incidences tends to spike.

It’s prompted Mills, and others in her role, to be acutely specific when it comes to defining what qualifies as bullying. According to the definition adopted by the Salem-Keizer School District, “bullying is unfair and one-sided. It happens when someone keeps hurting, frightening, threatening or leaving someone out on purpose.”

Mills, who is school counselor at Gubser and Cummings Elementary Schools, said the levels of bullying in either building is relatively low, but she meets with classes regularly to reinforce anti-bullying messages.

“We try to teach from the prevention standpoint of the school as a community and the need to respect each other,” Mills said. “It requires understanding the difference between big problems and little problems.”

Mills spoke on the issue during a meeting with a small number of interested parents recently.

When students feel they are being targeted by a bully they are encouraged to draw upon their knowledge of Kelso’s Wheel, a system of potential responses to behavioral problems. It includes things as simple as walking away and as potentially complex as talking it out.

“Once they’ve tried two of those and they haven’t worked, we tell them it’s time to tell an adult,” Mills said. “We try to work with them and get them to stand up for themselves.”

Mills is careful with the label of a bully. It might only serve to reinforce the behavior and make the bullier feel as though there’s no room to change. It’s easy for parents to jump to conclusions, but Mills is in the position to know a student’s whole story and what other factors are contributing to the bullying behavior, like trouble at home.

As much as what she teaches is meant for potential bullies and their targets, it’s also meant for bystanders. Mills likes to get the two parties in a room together, with parents if needed, so that the bully and victim can talk it out with adult supervision.

“We try to empower the witnesses to bullying because they can make or break a situation. If the bully sees an audience for his behavior he’ll continue, but if the bystanders step in, he or she will probably back off,” Mills said.

Mills hopes parents will advocate for their children, but they need to approach without ultimatums, such as ending an e-mail with “what are you going to do about this?”

“Our teachers need to know when something is happening, but parents also need to trust the teachers as being able to offer an objective judgement,” she said.

Bullying also rears its head in different ways depending on gender. Boys tend to be more physically or verbally aggressive, while girls typically bully through exclusion.

Biological development can also be a factor, she said.

“The brain develops from back to front, and the prefrontal cortex is the last to develop. It’s the part that controls planning, judgement, forethought, impulse control and learning from mistakes. Sometimes it truly is just a matter of having more patience with a particular child,” Mills said.

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