Bullying has been a problem for generations, but some recent incidents among Altoona School District students highlight the problem.
In October, a high school student was assaulted on his way home from school by three other students, leaving him bloodied and in hospital with a broken nose and other injuries, his family told The Mirror.
Jessica Sipe heard of the incident, and also called the mirror to talk about some of her children who witnessed at school.
“My daughter and son would come home every day and say to me, ‘I saw another kid jump on it’ or ‘I saw another kid get hit,'” Siby said.
School district officials said they are aware of the various quarrels between students but are unable to speak directly about individual incidents, putting the district at a disadvantage.
Assistant Superintendent Brad Hatch said it’s hard to give both sides of the story when the district can’t speak openly about certain incidents, but promised that the district would keep a close eye on any conflict or troubling communication between students.
The 13-year-old’s grandfather, who ended up with a broken nose, told The Mirror that it wasn’t the first time bullies the student had encountered had entered.
Don Powers said at the time that he understood that the district could not prevent every instance of bullying, but if the district “do not forgive” Bullying approach, he wants more accountability and action.
Seb thinks the area is not doing enough and decides to take her children out of school after hearing about the incidents her children have witnessed. Seb claimed that one of them happened in the locker room right in front of her daughter.
“A girl walked into the locker room, pulled another girl by her hair, and repeatedly punched her in the face in front of everyone,” Siby said.
Seb said her children were afraid to walk around the school themselves out of fear that something similar might happen to them, which led to her decision to withdraw them from the school. She was planning to enroll her children in Altoona Online Academy.
She said that her interaction with the school district led nowhere and that the responses she received were not always agreeable in her eyes.
Procedures in place
While he is unable to address Bowers and Sepey’s complaints directly, Hatch said the district has multiple procedures in place to deal with harassment and bullying.
“The last thing we want is for the conflict to end with a physical altercation, verbal altercation, or someone feeling that they are being harassed or bullied,” Hutch said.
In an effort to pre-empt any potential problems, the district has a monitoring system across all of its electronic devices and cloud networks to look for specific language and negative interactions sent between students. Hatch said he receives hundreds of notifications throughout the day to check for problems the system flags.
The district has programs and lesson plans at the elementary level to promote healthy relationships and discourage bullying.
It’s a joint effort between classroom teachers and extension departments at schools, said Haley Flegel, assistant superintendent of Elementary Curriculum, Education and Programs.
Since elementary students are connected to electronic devices as well, these schools have also added device monitoring.
“They are flagged for anything they put there on their device,” She said.
In only two hours, said Hatch, in middle school and high school, “I had at least five different fears that I got so digitally on that I had to get it to my guidance counselor (to) see this kid right away.”
“stack in effect”
Daniel Francis Perkins, a professor of youth and family resilience at Penn State, said that while bullying has been a problem for generations, the rise at this time of year is likely due in part to the holiday season and the potential for more time at home in uncomfortable environments.
“You wouldn’t potentially have the same amount of control over your family situation, so where would you control it?” Perkins asked. “Well, you might try to get it in your school setting.”
Perkins was careful to say that there seems to be no single root cause for bullying.
He said it’s more than “cumulative effect” from several factors over time.
He said the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have played a role in the current tension among students, because students have been in potentially unhealthy environments at home for much of last year and into the beginning of this year. This will lead the students to criticize when they return to school in an attempt to regain control of their lives and get rid of this frustration and other pent-up feelings.
That was certainly the case at the beginning of the school year when students went back to school, Hatch said, but it hasn’t been a huge factor in the past two months.
According to Hatch, the district is trying to create a climate for students in which they feel safe to interact and report any issues, rather than focusing strictly on how to punish bullying and other conflicts.
This is the smarter approach to anti-bullying, Perkins said, saying it has been shown to be most effective in several case studies.
“You can certainly target bullies, but that won’t solve the problem,” Perkins said. “You really have to think about prevention — what is the root cause? It’s really about changing the culture.”
Even before the pandemic, the school was working on helping students develop coping skills, said Drew Yingling, head of Altoona District School Extension.
“One of the things we try to focus on is social and emotional learning,” Yingling said. The goal is to educate and instill in students the social and conflict resolution skills necessary to successfully navigate their teenage years.
Ultimately, Hatch said, the district cannot guarantee the absolute safety of every student in terms of being able to make sure they avoid any altercation during their time in the district, as it takes effort on the student parts as well. But he said he believes the district has programs in place to help students succeed and make any potential negative interactions last for the shortest possible time.
“We are not naive in thinking that we will completely eliminate student conflict, because as long as we are human, it is likely to continue as the children mature,” Hutch said. “But we need to do everything we can to instill in them the skills to resolve their differences and conflicts in a positive way.”
Regarding accidents outside school premises, Hatch said students do not always take advice that teachers, staff and counselors give them.
Hatch said that one of the students was not heading home when he encountered a group of students and an altercation ensued.
“Sometimes they don’t take our advice,” He said. “There are always multiple sides to the story and we try our best proactively to never get to the point where a situation like this happens.”
Mirror Staff Clerk Nate Poules is available at 814-946-7466.