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RANGELY | Most adults remember middle school as a trying time full of awkward interactions and emotional roller coasters, often leaving those adolescent years difficult to navigate. Throw bullying into the mix and life for a young teen gets even harder. While bullying is nothing new, the advent of social media and cell phones certainly add a new element to the mix. At Rangely Junior/Senior High the struggle with bullying has fueled a conversation about the need for cultural changes.
“I want to improve upon the culture we have here,” said Junior/Senior High Principal Crandal Mergelman.
Webster’s Dictionary defines the word bully as “a blustering, browbeating person; especially one who is habitually cruel, insulting, or threatening to others who are weaker, smaller, or in some way vulnerable.” Reports from several parents and students indicate that this is clearly what’s happening in the school today.
According to some parents and students the bulk of the bullying seems to primarily reside with female middle school students. One parent provided a timeline of recent trouble saying that the uptick in bullying began as many teenage dramas do, with boys. Notes were left in lockers calling girls a variety of names with one telling them to “stay away from our boyfriends you [expletive]”. From there the notes escalated to suggesting that a girl should commit suicide. In addition to the dark notes the parent said that several physical altercations have been reported including fights in the stairwell and at after school functions. The parent expressed concern about the students receiving the notes, saying, “You never know what is going on in someone’s life or what a letter can push someone to do.” They want other parents to be aware of what is going on and talk to their kids. “A lot of this stems from home. Parents have got to be involved in everything and not fuel the fire,” they said.
One young female student recalled countless stories of both personally experiencing and observing students regularly ridiculed for everything from hair styles and clothes to weight and personal history. “It makes going to school harder,” she said. Her mother is concerned about the young age the bullying is manifesting at. “We dealt with a lot of issues like this in high school,” she said. “Now it’s happening much younger. They aren’t capable of dealing with this. How do you instill confidence in your child when they hear all that negativity all day long? And why aren’t people more worried about this?”
Both parent and child feel like the overabundance of bullying isn’t being taken seriously enough by the school. “Parents need to know what’s going on so they can talk to their kids about it. The school should encourage the parent/child relationship by just saying the bullying is happening and encouraging parents to discuss it with their kids. The weekly email updates would be a good platform for that,” she said, adding, “There needs to be policies in place and serious consequences for dealing with it.”
Mergelman confirmed there have been instances of bullying, saying it has been more openly occurring with middle school students, as they are at an age where they often struggle to deal with emotions in appropriate ways.
The school has responded in several ways. In an attempt to prevent the anonymous note dropping they put tape over the vents of the lockers and stopped allowing students to leave class except during passing periods. Mergelman also began holding staff meetings to discuss how the they can encourage an atmosphere where students feel “safe and comfortable.” Mergelman says he has addressed specific classes where there has been a concentration of the harmful behavior. Additionally, the health class has added bullying information to their curriculum and the school has begun incorporating the Moral Focus program utilized by Parkview Elementary.
While not a direct response to the bullying, as it had been in the works as early as last spring, last month the district brought in the program ‘Rachel’s Challenge’ which encouraged students to act kindly. “Rachel’s Challenge met a timely need,” said Superintendent Matt Scoggins. The program, which came with curriculum and leadership training for students, focused on creating a culture of positivity and kindness that is student led. Since the program the school has developed a Friends of Rachel Club. Mergelman believes he is seeing positive signs of change describing lockers covered in sticky notes with positive thoughts scrawled on them.
Mergelman says he’s communicating with parents about the bullying and, “letting them know what we’re seeing—good and bad.” He also encouraged parents to speak with him if they have thoughts or concerns. “I want to hear what they think is and isn’t working,” he said.
According to Scoggins the district does not have any policies that deal specifically with bullying saying there’s nothing “black and white on it.” The Student Handbook distributed annually includes a paragraph on bullying which states in part, “Actions or words that hurt the heart. Behaviors that are cruel, hurtful, and degrading, which often compels the victim to feel bad and do things they do not wish to.” No specific consequences for the behavior are listed.
Mental health professionals warn of the long term consequences of both being bullied and acting as a bully. Michelle Huber of Mind Springs Health in Rangely said, “Bullying can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-worth and negative coping skills like cutting and use of substances.” Parents should know the signs that their child is involved in bullying and keep an eye on their child. Signs that your child is the victim of a bully might include no desire to attend school, loss of interest in homework or school, declining grades, avoidance of social situation, loss of friends, frequent somatic complaints like stomachaches, headaches, unexplained injuries, self-destructive behaviors, lost or destroyed personal items, changes in appetite or sleep patterns, unreasonable fears, anxiety and depression and changes in personality.”
Parents should also watch for signs that their child might be acting as a bully. According to Huber those indications could be acting increasingly aggressive, having a tendency to blame others for their problems and/or difficulty accepting responsibility for their own behavior, engaging in verbal or physical altercations, getting into trouble at school such as detentions, and/or have belongings that are not theirs.
Huber suggests parents work to keep the lines of communication open between them and their children. “Listen when your child talks to you, ask about their day, their friends, their mood. Ask if they would like to talk to someone besides you about what is going on, i.e. a teacher, pastor, counselor, monitor their social websites,” she said.
Bullying can also come with legal consequences. According to Police Chief Vince Wilczek bullying itself is not a crime, however the harassment associated with it can be. Wilczek said that bullies can be prosecuted for harassment, intimidation and assault depending on the situation. The police have not been involved in the current situation at the junior high.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics more than one in five students report being bullied. However according to the Institute of Education Sciences 65 percent of bullying goes unreported.