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Editorial: Middle schools require special focus on bullying

Jul. 28, 2013 @ 07:01 PM

Middle school is not easy -- for anyone.

The students are no longer "little kids," but they have a lot of "growing up" to do. Educators know it is a critical time for learning, one that can determine future academic success or failure. But they also know students are navigating a complex world of new peer relationships, authority figures and their own personal changes.

That makes it challenging for teachers, administrators, parents and particularly the students themselves. Over the course of the past 5-7 years there has been an increasing local and national focus on middle school achievement and the goals in the classroom.

But there is also a big challenge in the hallways, around campus and on the bus.

A report from the West Virginia Department of Education last week shows that about half of the reported incidents of student bullying come from middle schools, the Charleston Gazette reported. High schools account for about 26 percent of incidents and elementary schools about 18 percent, based on data from the 2011-2012 school year.

There were 6,300 cases altogether of students who were disciplined for bullying, harassment and intimidation, and about three-fourths were boys. But there are also many types of bullying, such as spreading rumors and verbal insults, that go unreported and unpunished.

The middle school environment is particularly vulnerable to bullying, researchers say, because at that age students are so susceptible to peer pressure and do not fully understand the consequences of their actions. One researcher at UCLA found that this type of aggressive social behavior can actually boost the social status and popularity of middle school students.

"The ones who are cool bully more, and the ones who bully more are seen as cool," said Jaana Juvonen, a UCLA professor of psychology and lead author of the study. "What was particularly interesting was that the form of aggression, whether highly visible and clearly confrontational or not, did not matter. Pushing or shoving and gossiping worked the same for boys and girls."

Effective anti-bullying programs need to focus not only on the bullies themselves but those students who stand by and watch it happen. Those "bystanders" play a critical role in either encouraging or discouraging the behavior, the UCLA study concluded.

State schools Superintendent Jim Phares told members of a legislative interim committee that schools are working on many fronts to reduce bullying, but the efforts must go beyond the occasional assembly program.

Teachers need extra training on how to promote appropriate student behavior and handle bullying incidents, the WVDE report says. It also recommends that those being disciplined should serve suspensions in school so that they get the counseling and support they need.

Middle school has many lessons to teach, and some of those are about how to treat other people.

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