A sixth-grade Vancouver boy allegedly armed himself with a handgun, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and several kitchen knives before heading to school Wednesday morning. The reason for the arsenal, according to a probable cause affidavit filed in Clark County Juvenile Court: to prevent another student from bullying his friend.
Bullying continues to be a significant issue in need of attention at schools across the state and the country, said Mike Donlin, program supervisor for the School Safety Center of the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
In Clark County, about 33 percent of sixth- and eighth-graders say they’ve been bullied at school, according to the 2012 Healthy Youth Survey, an anonymous survey administered to middle and high school students across the state. Those numbers mirror the statewide figures.
“Because we know the impacts, it continues to make it one of those things we need to continue to work on constantly,” Donlin said.
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Bullying not only impacts the kids who are targeted, but also the kids doing the bullying and the kids who witness it, Donlin said.
In the simplest way, bullying is distracting, he said. Bullying also affects students’ sense of safety, which can impact their grades, their ability to study and, as a result, their future prospects, Donlin said.
Students who are bullied may also experience depression, thoughts of suicide and, in extreme cases, may react with violence or self-harm, Donlin said. Witnesses feel helpless and hopeless, he said.
A violent response to bullying isn’t typical, Donlin said, and oftentimes bullying isn’t the sole reason for kids and teens to act out violently.
An act of bullying may be a contributing factor to violence and self-harm, and it may be the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” Donlin said, but there is often more to the story, such as mental health issues or other problems in their lives.
Still, the idea that bullying is a harmless part of growing up — something everyone experiences — is a myth that needs to be dispelled, Donlin said.
“Just because something happens a lot, just because it happened throughout time, doesn’t mean it’s something that should be happening,” he said. “Now we know much more the impacts over time, and we need to stop it.”
While bullying remains a significant problem, the number of expulsions and suspensions due to bullying have been declining across the state and in Clark County over the past few years, Donlin said.
During the 2011-12 school year, the most recent data available, Clark County school administrators suspended863 students for bullying. They expelled 40 students, according to data collected by OSPI. That year, county schools had about 76,700 students.
Four years earlier, during the 2008-09 school year, local school administrators suspended 1,421students and expelled 115 kids, according to OSPI data. That year, local schools had nearly the same number of students as more recent years, about 76,100 kids.
School districts across the state have been working hard to create a climate where bullying isn’t tolerated, Donlin said. School officials are also trying to equip kids with the resources and tools to support their friends and recognize when they need to intervene, he said.
At home, parents who talk to their kids — who have real conversations about what’s going on in their children’s lives — let them know there’s somebody they can turn to when they or their friends are experiencing bullying, Donlin said.
“If every kid knows that there’s a trusted adult that he or she can go to, turn to, that’s critically important,” he said.