Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series examining bullying in Aiken County and what resources are available in the community to alleviate the problem.
In 2010, Langley-Bath-Clearwater Middle School held a school-wide assembly with a wide range of speakers talking about bullying and urging students to understand the impact it can have.
Following that event, some of them expressed hope that people would listen.
Yet in a world overwhelmed by social media, that's a huge challenge in every walk of life, including schools.
“For the last year and a half, bullying has spiraled out of control,” said Paula Winchester, LBC's guidance counselor. “Every issue we have that's related to conflict and threats of fighting comes from cyber-bullying.”
The Aiken County School District has a formal policy against acts of harassment, intimidation or bullying – primarily by students against other students – “that interfere with or disrupt a student's ability learn and the school's responsibility to educate its students ...”
The state passed a law about this in 2006, and every district has such a policy.
Serious actions would come to the District's attention through the disciplinary process, said Bill Burkhalter, the School Board attorney. Expulsion recommendations could go to the District's tribunal, a panel that holds expulsion hearings.
“Bullying used to be straight forward,” said Burkhalter. “Students would be caught in that action. But in social media, they can do their damage and try to maintain some anonymity by putting up defensive walls.”
However, cyber-bullying and text messaging apparently don't seem to start in earnest until middle school, said Aiken Elementary School Principal Becky Koelker. Students tend to get in verbal spats or exclude others from activities, she said.
Two years ago, Koelker brought in a prevention program called Olweus, named after its founder, Dr. Dan Olweus, a research professor.
Koelker put together a team and trained the entire faculty to introduce the research-based program against bullying.
“It's working well,” she said. “We have classroom meetings every Tuesday, and we've gotten a good response.”
Nine years ago, a program called Girls Against Bullying – better known as GAB – was developed by Liz Victor, an Aiken High School student.
She had begun to realize that girls could be hostile, even vicious, in bullying other girls.
Victor recruited girls from her school and South Aiken High, training them to meet with mostly middle school girls to hear and support them in their issues with intimidation and bullying.
The younger girls appreciated the help from the older teenagers. Before the program ended about five years ago, Casey Frails – who went on to graduate from Aiken High and the College of Charleston – led GAB through both high schools.
“We heard some heartbreaking stories that were more than normal, petty things,” Frails said. “For those who were the bullies, we tried to make them understand there are other ways to channel that energy.”
Gina Bassford, a District office staff member, works with guidance counselors, especially those at middle schools, about bullying issues.
The schools' websites have forms on bullying or harassment issues that can be filled out by teachers and parents. These reports can result in investigations and disciplinary actions as warranted.
Significant infractions can lead to suspensions or expulsion recommendations. Students may spend time at the District's alternative facility or may be accepted for an intervention process.
Winchester will visit classrooms as a counselor to provide lessons for all the children about bullying. Students who have been victimized at LBC will come to her, and their parents may show proof of bullying by printing off online threats and abuse.
While Winchester offers support for those facing bullying issues, she also runs several “Choices” groups for students who have had multiple issues with instigating bullying.
“If I see a pattern beginning, they start in my groups,” Winchester said. “I only run the same genders in each. The children are very immature and don't realize that what they're doing is serious.”
She does point out that bullying issues can be more complex than they seem. Harassment in its various forms is so pervasive that if a child gets an odd look from another student in the hallway, he will consider it bullying, she said.
“That kind of thing is just part of middle school life,” Winchester said. “We try to teach the students the difference.”
Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.