Bullying a priority for PUSD
17 reported cases so far this year
For years, bullying was seen as no big deal, and for many, a rite of passage. Freshmen were hazed by seniors, and when they became seniors those same freshmen hazed the incoming class.
"Kids will be kids," was the common response for years. But as the after-effects of bullying became better known, schools across the country began taking steps to solve the bully problem.
Pleasanton is no exception. As of the 2011-12 school year, there were 19 documented cases of bullying, according to Kevin Johnson, the district's senior director of pupil services. So far in 2012-13, he said there have been 17, so the number of reported cases will likely be higher than a year ago.
Those are just the ones that were reported; a 2010 study showed that the majority of bullying is only reported when it escalates to physical violence, and only about 40% of the time, even then.
Late last year, a student from Amador was taken out of school by her mother after the girl received text messages and comments from her classmates saying things like, "Why don't you just kill yourself?"
Cassandra Bankson knows first-hand how devastating bullying can be. She was bullied so severely for cystic acne during middle and high school that she dropped out of San Ramon Valley High. Bankson did private study, and graduated two years early.
"It wasn't until middle school and high school that it started to bother me. I wasn't thrown in trash cans or anything. It was very emotional and verbal," she said. "It was almost to the point that I didn't feel like a member of society."
Bankson said she floated through friendships but did have a particular friend, also with acne, in middle school. A trip to the doctor worked for the friend, although a similar treatment did little for Bankson.
"Toward the end of our friendship, she started picking on me as well," Bankson said. "It was probably because she wanted to fit in, too. She wanted to connect with them."
Bankson urges anyone who is the victim of bullying to talk to someone, although she said her counselor said the usual -- "'kids are going to be kids, they'll get over it.'"
She wished she'd gone to another counselor or been able to talk to her parents about it earlier.
Now, Bankson said, she realizes that everyone has the potential to be both a victim and a bully.
"Words hurt and, regardless of your age or your situation, bullying happens," she said. "It's about recognizing it in yourself and in other people."
Her story has a happy ending. The 6-foot-tall woman, now 20, is an Internet sensation, sharing her battle with severe cystic acne and makeup tips. Bankson shoots makeup tutorials, her YouTube channel has more than 300,000 subscribers, and her videos have received over 44 million hits.
The Pleasanton school district in general and some schools in particular are addressing bullying. Johnson said counselors and administrators are giving presentations every semester, and the district has a tip line as well.
"I'm also working with middle school administrators. We have a proposal for a company that would like to talk to us, specializing on something for the middle schools," Johnson said. "A lot of bullying starts in the middle school years."
In addition, he said, the DARE program has been modified to include both bullying and cyberbullying, and the Pleasanton Police Department is offering four one-hour workshops for parents, which include bullying, along with education on drug and alcohol abuse and Internet safety.
Cyberbullying has become a growing concern, thanks to the rise in social media and Internet access for young people who can use sites like Facebook, instant messaging, texts or tweets to carry verbal abuse or threats.
Johnson described cyberbullying as "a tough one."
"It's a major concern. Unlike when we were in school, when one person would say something and four others would see it," he said, adding that now, "hundreds of people see it."
Foothill High School has been at the forefront of the fight against bullying in Pleasanton. Last year, the school brought speaker Calvin Terrell in to speak about the issue.
While his talks did include one anecdotal story of a fourth-grader who committed suicide after her phone was stolen by a girl who used it to send out pornographic pictures, Terrell focused mainly on the larger problems of racism and classism, saying that if those are solved, bullying would fade away.
"Bullying is the poisonous plant that grows in the toxic soil of prejudice," he told a group at the Four Points Sheraton, his third talk of the day, after speaking at two assemblies at Foothill High.
Foothill has a Facebook page, Foothill compliments, which is solely for people to spread positive messages; Amador Valley High has a similar Facebook page called "Hey, you're awesome. Love, Amador."
Foothill has also received a $16,000 two-year grant to begin a "restorative justice" program. The program includes students being confronted by the people they've hurt. They may be asked to give an apology, identifying exactly what they did wrong.
School Board Member Jamie Hintzke has been an advocate of restorative justice, but she said it will take more than that to end bullying.
"The bullying conversation is not just doing stuff when it happens, it's how you create an environment where it doesn't happen," Hintzke said. "It's not just kids. It's staff. It's parents. It's on the soccer field."