in the fall, Kathleen Atene's 5-year-old daughter was eagerly
anticipating her first day of kindergartenshe'd get to
ride the big yellow bus and go to the school her older sister attended.
But when Atene went to her first parent conference a few weeks into
the school-year, the teacher informed her that since the beginning
of the year her daughter had been bullied by a classmate on the
bus and in schoolthe abuse included having her hair pulled
and being mocked for her appearance. The revelation surprised Atene,
in part because her three other children had never experienced anything
similar and her youngest had never said a word. The teacher said
she was aware of the problem and the bully and her daughter had
been separated. "She reassured me she would follow up,"
Atene, a public health nurse in Chinle,
Arizona, on the Navajo Nation, assumed the problem had been resolved.
But then she noticed that her daughter's behavior was changing.
"She used to read and play after school, but now she'd
come home and go straight to sleep. She was losing weight. She was
self-conscious about how she looked. Her self-esteem had plummeted.
She would sleep through dinner and I would have to feed her. It
was so unlike her. I asked her what was wrong, but she didn't
want to tell me."
In January, Atene had a day off from work
and was getting her daughter ready for school. "She just cried
and cried and begged me not to make her go to school." Finally,
her daughter told Atene that a child was pulling her hair on the
bus, intimidating her in the cafeteria, making fun of her clothes
and even how she smiled. Deeply concerned, Atene sent her children
to school on the bus and followed in her car, determined to talk
to school authorities about the bullying.
Mose Herne (Akwesasne Mohawk), acting
deputy director of the Indian Health Service's Division of
Behavioral Health, Office of Clinical and Preventive Services, says
bullying is a pervasive problemnearly a third of all students
experience some form of it at school, and about 20 percent are physically
bullied at some point in their lives. Bullying occurs more in middle
schools (about 44 percent of schools) than in elementary or high
schools (about 20 percent). And now, cyber-bullying is virulent.
The Cyberbullying Research Center's statistics from 2010 show
that as many as 20 percent of all students have been the victims
of cyber-bullying and about the same number have been perpetrators.
the statistics are far from definitive, one study indicates that
bullying may be more prevalent in Native American schools. Herne
says, "According to a recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey, when
compared to the overall youth population, Navajo high school students
were significantly more likely to: (1) avoid going to school at
least one day because they felt unsafe (10.9 percent versus 5.5
percent); (2) have been in a physical fight on school property one
or more times (17.2 percent versus 12.4 percent); (3) carry a weapon
on school property at least one day (11.2 percent versus 5.9 percent);
and (4) have been threatened or injured with a weapon on school
property one or more times (9.6 percent versus 7.8 percent)."
Anecdotal evidence and some small studies
have indicated that bullying behavior is directly influenced by
a student's home life, and now a large study has confirmed
that. A report released April 22 by the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention verified that kids involved in bullying are far more
likely to have witnessed violence in their families or to have been
the victims of intra-familial violence than students who were neither
bullies nor the victims of bullying. The analysis also showedas
expectedthat bullies and their victims are more likely than
others to get poor grades, to use alcohol and drugs, to consider
suicide or other self-hurting behaviors and to report feeling sad
or hopeless. Students who were categorized in the study as being
both bullies and victims of intra-familial violence were most at
risk. The report was based on the Massachusetts Youth Health Survey,
which studied 6,000 students in Massachusetts public middle and
So there are some indications and numbers
that this is an important issue in Indian country. What we need
and do not yet have, says Herne, are an agreed-upon description
of what behaviors constitute bullying (basically a definition),
community-based research or even best practices for school districts,
superintendents and principals. However, the fact that we don't
have all the information we want, says Herne, "should not stop
us from taking action."
Across the U.S., bullying is a serious
problem that worriesand oftentimes stymiesparents, teachers
and others who care about kids. But a few smart, caring American
Indians are quietly making a difference.
Atene did not wait for the school to save
her child from bullying. She went to her child's teacher and
told her that the bullying had become a mental health issue for
her daughter, and asked to see the school's policy on bullying.
The school responded that it was unable to give her a document stating
that policy, which made her wonder if the policy even existed in
any formal sense. When she asked how many times her child had been
victimized she learned that there was no documentation of the incidents
involving her child or for those of any other bullying victims at
the school. Atene asked if the principal was aware of the trouble
her daughter was having. When told that the principal was not on
top of this situation, Atene went to her in February and asked what
training her teachers had received to handle bullying. The principal
said her staff had been trained and should know what to do. "Is
there staffing in the cafeteria and at recess?" Atene asked.
"There was last year, but not this year," the principal
said. "Were there any anti-bullying posters on the walls for
the children to see?" Just small ones.
At that point, Atene realized that the
school wasn't doing enough and couldn't do enough. "I
offered my services," she says. "I suggested that I go
into my daughter's classroom and talk about bullying. The principal
said I could do that. I then asked my daughter's teacher to
invite the parents."
On February 14, Atene gave a presentation
to the children in her youngest daughter's class and a few
parents. The children listened as she explained to them what bullying
was, and that it hurt other people, and that there were things they
could do if they were being bullied or saw someone being bullied.
The parents took home handouts to share with their families.
Atene was in good company when she decided
to confront bullying head-onit's the approach endorsed
by the federal government. The U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services' Health Resources and Services Administration's
Stop Bullying Now program, has received very positive reviews. The
free program is available at StopBullying.gov or on DVD. The website
is rich in materials for kids, teens, young adults and adults and
includes information about how to launch a program at your school,
as well as toll-free numbers for students who are being bullied.
One strong advocate of that program is
Julie Walton, suicide prevention coordinator under the Indian Health
Service's Methamphetamine & Suicide Prevention Initiative
for American Indian and Alaska Native Youth for the 1,000-member
Aroostook Band of Micmacs in Presque Isle, Maine. When Walton noticed
bullying among the kids she worked with, she downloaded materials
from the Stop Bullying Now website and began a program for a dozen
5- to 11-year-olds. "My biggest goal was to get kids to be
kind and treat each other with respect."
Walton enlisted the help of 13-year-old
Troy Melissa DeWitt on the premise that kids would listen better
to a just slightly older kid than to adults. "They would take
in more information and believe it," says Walton. In addition,
DeWitt could model behavior for the younger students. Walton also
added some team-building activities to the program. Asked whether
her program has had an effect, Walton says, "By the end of
the program, kids would actually call each other out if someone's
behavior was sneaky or inappropriate. Kids were getting other kids
to behave with kindness and respect."
Walton says Stop Bullying Now is a very
practical, hands-on program that teachers, after-school personnel,
youth leaders and parents can easily implement. She plans to run
another program in the southern part of the county as soon as she
can figure out how to get around in her very rural location.
Bullying is not only an educational or
a health issue; it is a matter that the U.S. Department of Justice
takes very seriously. The effects of bullying on young people should
not be trivialized, and it is a critical issue in Indian country.
The Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing
Services says that crimes related to bullying in Indian country
include assaults, extortion, sexual offenses, shootings, murder,
stabbings, threats, theft and vandalism. Herne says bullying is,
"a gateway behavior. Bullies go on to commit more serious crimes60
percent of bullies are convicted of at least one crime" later
in their lives. The consequences for victims are also dire: they
include low school achievement, low self-esteem, depression, drug
and alcohol use, self-hurting behaviors and suicide.
A 2000 survey of Lac Vieux Desert Band
kids in grades 6-12 who attended school in Watersmeet, Michigan
found that 69 percent felt they did not have a caring school climate,
24 percent said they had been victims of one of more incidents of
school violence in the past year, 77 percent of students in grades
9-12 said their school did not have clear rules or impose consistent
consequences and one-third reported that they had hit another person.
Diana Kuklinski, director of the Indian Health Service's Division
of Environmental Health Services in the Bemidji (Minnesota) Area
says, "The results of the survey led the tribe and the Watersmeet
Township to collaborate in achieving a common goal: reducing the
violence and bullying behaviors of the students within the Watersmeet
Township K-12 School and communities."
In 2005, they created a three-year school-based
pilot program, Creating Caring Communities Bully-Proofing Your School.
The program has then expanded to include K-12 schools serving five
other tribesRed Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, Oneida Tribe
of Indians of Wisconsin, Stockbridge-Munsee Community, Bad River
Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, and the Forest
County Potawatomi Community.
The results have been very promising.
Kuklinski says, "At the end of the second year, the Watersmeet
Township School achieved a statistically significant decrease in
physical and psychological bullying as reported by students in grades
K-8 Colorado School Climate Survey. Students reported that they
experienced and observed less bullying by being hit, kicked or pushed,
others saying mean things, telling stories, being threatened, or
from students taking their things. We're looking at the results
from the other schools, but haven't gotten the data analyzed
enough to know the impact of the program in their schools."
They have a great deal of raw data that could be extremely helpful
to other school, says Kuklinski. What they do not have are the funds
to analyze the data.
Bullying programs use different principles,
says Herne. Some, such as Stop Bullying Now, are primarily behavior-based,
giving children and adults the strategies to recognize bullying
and stop it through statements, humor, redirecting behavior, enlisting
the support of others, and so on. Some, like the American Indian
Life Skills Development Curriculum, a strict evidence-based program,
are strength-based interventions, designed to increase children's
self-protective behavior and resilience and to reduce risk-taking.
"They teach kids to build self-esteem to weather life's
challenges, to cope in a positive way," he says.
Natalie Vega has returned to her community
of origin as a mental health therapist intern at the Toiyabe Indian
Health Project, where she is using the American Indian Life Skills
Development Curriculum with 5- to 7-year-olds on the Bishop Paiute
Reservation. She says she has changed the wording of the program
a little to make it friendlier for these young children. Her goal
is to give the students the skills early on. She has even thought
about trying the program with Head Start and day-care children.
Vega also confronts the challenge of how
formally to measure the impact of the program, but she does have
her own observations and those of others who work with the children.
"They're making a bond with each other and learning to
look out for each other," she says. "They noticed one
boy was isolating himself, and they found ways to bring him into
the group. They've also learned to look out for the bullies
and include them."
Atene saw similar results in her daughter's
classroom after she made her presentation. "The kids know how
serious bullying is now. My daughter talks to me about what's
happening and will report if someone is bullying her." She
is working with her daughter to help her recover from the experience,
to bring back her self-esteem, to gain weight, to learn more about
bullying through books, to "bring her back to where she was."
Atene says, "It happened to be my
daughter and that was heartbreaking. But it was an opportunity for
me to advocate for all the kids in that situation. And a lot of
kids who are bullies are asking for help, too." Atene has given
her presentation at five of the 16 schools in the Chinle Service
area, and incorporates it into her work for the Indian Health Service.
Kathleen Atene, Mose Herne, Julie Walton,
Troy Melissa DeWitt, Diana Kuklinski and Natalie Vega are just some
of the people who have refused to let bullying in schools that serve
Indian children continue to be ignored or trivialized.
The resources below are available at no
charge to help others take up the challenge:
Department of Health and Human Services
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration:
ABCs of Bullying: Addressing, Blocking, and Curbing School Aggression
of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families
for Disease Control and Prevention
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
and Mortality Weekly Report: Bullying Among Middle School and High
School Students Massachusetts, 2009; April 22, 2011
Kids: It's My Life
Indian Health Service Director Dr. Yvette
IHS Suicide Prevention Public Service Announcement Narrated by Indian
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
1-800-273-TALK (8255) It is free and confidential, 24/7