SCHOOL SAFETY: Trouble in middle school

Officials in Clark County districts strive to curb fights, bullying among students

By Jacques Von Lunen, Columbian staff writer

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A lot of people recall their high school years with horror as they think back to cliques, bullies and daily popularity contests.

Maybe they don’t remember that the years right before were worse.

Middle school is prime time for strife and anxiety in many young people’s lives, judging by the school records chronicling students’ outbursts.

Documents from all Clark County school districts -- plus Woodland’s -- show that middle school students are cited for more incidents of fighting, bullying and weapons possession than other students. Middle schools lead the pack in such offenses not only when computed per capita, but in absolute numbers, even though high schools have a lot more kids.

The pattern is consistent over nearly a decade. It has prompted new programs aimed at giving adolescents the power to deal with conflicts.

The Columbian analyzed reports from 2003-2011 that districts file with the state each year. (To see individual schools’ numbers, go to http://www.columbian.com/datacenter/.)

The analysis shows that:

• More than 1,000 cases of bullying were reported each year in all districts combined during the eight-year period, peaking at 1,500 in 2008-09. The numbers fluctuated, with no clear overall trend.

• The total number of fights reported in all districts combined rose from about 600 in 2003-04 to 1,800 in 2010-11. While the county went through a growth spurt in that time, the frequency of fights still more than doubled when the enrollment increase is factored in.

• Gun citations are pretty rare. Last year, three kids in the county were punished for gun-related violations. One of those was an elementary school student bringing a single round of ammunition to school in Ridgefield. Another was a student with an air gun in his car’s glove box at Ridgefield High School. The third involved a student forgetting he had an air gun in his backpack at Evergreen High School. Districts of comparable size in the Tacoma and Seattle areas had many more gun infractions than districts in Clark County.

• Knife incidents also vary wildly. These usually do not involve one student pulling a blade on another, but students bringing pocket knives to school, which is prohibited.

• The number of fights per district was proportionate to enrollment -- Evergreen, the largest district in the area, had the most fights each year, closely followed by Vancouver and other districts in order of size. But the Vancouver school district topped the list of bullying incidents every year until last year, when its reports dropped precipitously.

Overall, most trouble brewed at the middle schools. Countywide on average, they had three times as many bullying incidents and four times as many fights as did the other schools. Some individual schools had high enough rates that their totals topped those of high schools twice their size.

McLoughlin and Jason Lee middle schools in the Vancouver school district, and Frontier Middle School in the Evergreen school district consistently showed up in the top ranks for various infractions over the years. Their records often were worse than those of schools twice their size.

Taking risks

It’s not surprising that middle school kids get into the most trouble, said Michelle Rowen, a counselor at Amboy and Daybreak middle schools in the Battle Ground school district. She is a licensed mental health counselor who worked in private practice for years before taking a school job four years ago.

The middle school years mark the first stage of adolescence in kids’ lives, a time of great instability, she said. It’s also the time when kids move from schools with small classrooms where they had one teacher all day to bigger schools where multiple teachers challenge them with difficult academic subjects.

Emotionally, the years from 10 to 14 are a time of individualization, Rowen said. Kids pull away from adults and express their independence. Membership in social groups becomes more important than family life at that point. But setting up a spot within the social group often involves establishing a pecking order, she said.

And that can lead to social aggression.

“For the guys that’s often physical and for girls, relational,” Rowen said. “That’s when you see teasing, bullying, rumors and exclusion.”

Risk-taking increases dramatically in adolescents, said Carolyn McCarty, a University of Washington professor who researches the efficacy of prevention programs for middle-schoolers.

Adolescents have an increased tendency to react automatically, without thinking, McCarty said. Kids at that stage especially take risks when they’re in front of their peers, she said.

“It’s a very unique age group,” said Bill Penrose, principal of Maple Grove Middle School in Battle Ground. “One minute they’re like kindergartners; the next minute it’s like dealing with an adult.”

Safe to report?

State health officials every two years conduct the Healthy Youth Survey. It gives students a chance to anonymously answer questions about risky behavior such as smoking or drinking. It also asks them if they feel safe at school and if they’ve been the recent victim of bullying or fighting.

About 30 percent of middle school students in Clark County in 2010 said they’d been bullied in the month before the survey was taken, which is about the state average. The survey does not break down data by school district.

That percentage is about 10 times higher than what was reported to state school officials by the districts that year. In part that’s because school reports only include students who were found at fault of the reported offense and were punished for it. Many incidents may be resolved with a good talking-to, without triggering the kinds of consequences that districts need to put on their annual reports.

And some of it is due to coding, local school officials say. While there are fairly clear guidelines for reporting the worst violent offenses, bullying and minor fighting are harder to classify. Different administrators may have different yardsticks for when to include a case on the report to the state.

But some portion of the discrepancy between survey and state records is due to students’ being afraid to come forward.

“There’s a risk to reporting,” McCarty, the UW professor, said. “Kids don’t always feel safe reporting.”

School officials say they’ve made great efforts to encourage reporting of such incidents.

Evergreen this year launched a new Web page where kids or parents can report bullying, anonymously if desired, said Scott Deutsch, the district’s risk and safety manager. This is in addition to existing options to report via text, phone call or email.

Incoming reports are monitored by Deutsch and the school the reporting student attends.

“We’re proactive, not just responsive,” said Mick Hoffmann, Vancouver’s director of security. “The days of, ‘Boys will be boys’ and, ‘Toughen up’ -- those days are done.”

Mediation

A program now in its third year at Battle Ground schools has kids helping kids.

Select students are trained as peer mediators. When youngsters get into a conflict, they can arrange a meeting in which two student mediators sit down with them and discuss ways to resolve whatever happened. They are expected to come away with an action plan.

It may seem overly optimistic to expect young teenagers to arrange mediation meetings before conflicts escalate into fights, but students are using it. At Maple Grove alone, about a dozen took advantage of it every year for the last two years. Little more than halfway through this school year, 10 kids have already signed up with mediators, Penrose said.

Considering that Maple Grove sees 17 cases of bullying and 27 fights per year on average, 10 avoided fights makes a difference.

What works?

Many other programs try to curb bullying and fighting in Clark County schools.

Every district has one or more anti-bullying curricula in place that are taught several times a week, and all train staff to identify and correct bullying.

Battle Ground uses a program called Second Step, which McCarty, the UW researcher, considers to be one of the best. Evergreen has one called Safe Schools.

These are in addition to programs selected by individual schools for their health classes and advisory hours.

Many schools also hold special assemblies or full days dedicated to anti-bullying messages, where they bring in speakers with a unique perspective on the topic.

Those single events aren’t nearly as effective as ongoing, sustained efforts, said McCarty.

Most effective -- though cost-prohibitive in the current budget climate -- would be to provide emotional health screening for every student, she said.

The existing programs don’t seem to make much of a dent. Bullying and fighting stats have fluctuated over the years, but no program has triggered a sudden drop in the numbers.

Vancouver this year is trying something new. The district in August launched a program called Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports. It briefs every staff member on how students are expected to behave during their entire school day, said Kathy Everidge, the district’s chief of secondary education. This expectation doesn’t just extend to class or the hallways, but to the buses and cafeterias. To enforce that vision, drivers and food workers are trained along with teachers and administrators, Everidge said.

One of the strategies introduced under the program is a universal sign for “Stop what you’re doing.”

If a student is uncomfortable with how another kid is acting, be it verbal or physical, he or she extends out one palm and brings the edge of the other hand down onto it in a chopping motion, said Bill Link, a district employee who has coordinated the new anti-bullying campaign in Vancouver schools.

It’s the symbol for “Stop” in American Sign Language. Kids in the schools that have adopted the new program know the symbol, which means that they can send a clear signal when good-natured ribbing has turned into harassment.

Other kids or adults can then step in and let the aggressor know he’s gone beyond the limits. The signal already has made it easier for students to help each other out.

“I’ve heard kids say, ‘It’s nice to know we got each other’s back,’” Link said.

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://www.twitter.com/col_schools.