COEUR d'ALENE - "You're gay."
Coeur d'Alene middle school principals told members of the school district's new Anti-Bullying Task Force on Tuesday that the phrase is the most common statement students in grades six to eight sling at one another as a form of derision.
The 32-member task force is part of the school district's renewed effort to combat bullying. Tuesday's gathering in the school district's Midtown Center meeting room was the group's first official meeting since school members called for the formation of the task force on March 4. It was formed in response to an outcry from parents who told the board in February that school officials and teachers aren't doing enough to protect their children from bullies.
"The topic is daunting," said Superintendent Hazel Bauman, before leading the task force members through nearly two hours of discussion and exercises focused on the multi-faceted problem.
She said they have to find a way to "send a message to the students that this is not acceptable behavior."
The task force includes trustees, principals, counselors, school resource officers, parents, community members and students.
Finding a clear definition of bullying was the group's first challenge. Bauman said there are different views on what constitutes bullying.
"Is bullying really worse than random conflict? I think it is," she said.
Task force members were given large pieces of paper and markers and asked to write assumptions often made about bullying.
Before long, the meeting room's walls were covered with thoughts on the topic:
* "All kids will experience bullying."
* "We aren't strict enough."
* "Bullying is a projection of insecurity."
* "Bullying is often assertion of power."
Group members reviewed written definitions of bullying prepared by experts. They agreed with Bill Rutherford's definition of bullying, that it is intentional, repetitive, aggressive behavior that often involves an imbalance of power between the victim and the aggressor.
Rutherford, a school counselor, is now principal of Fernan Elementary.
Task force members also considered a New York Times column by Emily Bazelon, senior editor at Slate, and author of "Sticks and Stones," a book about changing the culture of bullying.
"The word is being overused - expanding, accordionlike, to encompass both appalling violence or harassment and a few mean words. State laws don't help: a wave of recent anti-bullying legislation includes at least 10 different definitions, sowing confusion among parents and educators," Bazelon wrote.
Officer Steve Harris, the SRO at Coeur d'Alene High School, said Idaho code on student harassment defines bullying, but it's not always effective because violations are considered infractions, with very few consequences. Although a report will show up on a student's school record, Harris said, "It's like giving him a speeding ticket."
Trustee Terri Seymour, who co-chairs the task force with Bauman, encouraged task force members to contact their legislators about the state's bullying laws.
"We need to help out our guys," Seymour said, referring to the SROs.
Jeff Bengtson, now principal at Lakes Middle School, said that when he was principal of Canfield Middle School, they began using a "bully-harassment notebook."
They started documenting every incident, even the first time a student exhibits bullying behavior, Bengtson said, because teachers don't always know how many times a child has done this before.
Bauman said they might consider making such a notebook a "best practice" in district schools.
The school district's four policies on bullying and harassment don't align well with one another, Bauman said, and often lead to confusion and inconsistency in how bullying is addressed throughout the district. She said they need a clearer protocol for when parents are called.
"Parents have to be part of the fight against this," Bauman said.
Several high school students on the task force were asked to talk about the bullying they see in the schools. Two of them indicated that students with mental disabilities are often targeted.
One boy said he watched a student with a disability sitting at a lunch table with some non-disabled students.
"He thought he was getting accepted, but the vibe I got was that they were bullying him and he didn't know it," he said.
Another high school student said that when bullying is witnessed by students in schools, it's hard for them to speak up about it because they fear retaliation.
Pam Ascher, a counselor who teaches art at Lake City High School, said that in 11 percent of bullying cases, intervention comes through peer reports. Adults intervene in 4 percent of cases.
"There's no intervention in 85 percent of cases," Ascher said.
Gene Malvino, a community member, told the group that bullying is a symptom of a larger problem and is related to drug and alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, lying, cheating and other anti-social behaviors.
"The underlying problem is the lack of character education in our public schools. Good character is not formed automatically. It is developed through character education," Malvino said.
The task force will meet two more times in March, and then again several times before the school year ends. Goals include addressing the district's policies on bullying; identifying research-based anti-bullying programs to put in place; increasing parental involvement and education; and community engagement.
"I want to be aggressive about this because it's happening right now," said Trustee Seymour.