Someone is bullying Dione Gitrey’s granddaughter, and she wants it to stop.
She went through this a generation ago when her daughter was bullied at school. Gitrey, who lives in Texas City, wishes she could stop it from happening again.
She is not alone. School superintendents, state legislators, university researchers, attorneys, clergy, parents and even some students are struggling to find solutions to what many authorities say is a national public health crisis. It’s an old problem and a thorny one, made more so by proliferation and popularity of social media technology.
Many programs exist to combat bullying, some official, some grass roots, and they offer a wide range of methods that don’t always agree and in some cases contradict each other. For example, schools and psychologists say fighting back only prolongs a cycle of violence, but others encourage children to learn self-defense tactics.
One thing experts and parents agree on is that children who build healthy relationships tend to support each other and don’t tolerate bullying.
Gitrey might not know what works, but she has an idea about what doesn’t.
“When my daughter told me she was bullied, I went to the school,” Gitrey said. “I wanted to know who the child was. I was upset, I was angry. That made it worse for her. That’s why children don’t tell adults.”
It’s difficult to come up with solutions to bullying when children won’t tell parents or teachers or other adults that it’s happening, and it’s an issue researchers know well. The answer could rest with children themselves handling the problem, researchers told The Daily News. Resilience, compassion, empathy and courage can prevent bullying at the ground level.
Gitrey understands one reason why children don’t always bother telling a trusted adult.
“It’s like that old saying,” she said. “Snitches get stitches.”
Gitrey, who worked at University of Texas Medical Branch for 28 years as a researcher, said she volunteered in classrooms in the La Marque Independent School District. The district offered her a job as a teacher’s aide, but she quit after four months of witnessing bullying that the district did not want reported, Gitrey said.
“You couldn’t pay me to turn my back on these children and not report what’s going on,” Gitrey said.
She went in a different direction. She started Jeremiah’s Hope, a nonprofit organization, to find ways to prevent bullying.
The suicides of three Galveston County girls over a 15-month period haunted Gitrey. She knew two of the families, she said. She knew the girls were bullied, also, she said. And even though experts stress a direct causal link between bullying and suicide doesn’t exist, they do say bullying is among factors that can push a victim over the brink.
“Bullying is an improper balance of anything,” Gitrey said. “It’s when you do something to another person that is unwanted. All it takes is one time. We don’t want to wait on a second time.”
Her definition contrasts with most school districts as well as the legal definition in Texas, yet it is closer to what many academic researchers who study bullying say.
Gitrey started an all-girl anti-bullying club and another club for bullies to give them focus and responsibility. She wants to do more. Her family’s experience with bullying, her background as a researcher, her time in public schools witnessing bullies and her deep desire to make a difference culminated this year as she grieved with the community over the suicides.
“I have to take a stand,” she said. “I’ve seen so much. I want to be part of the solution.”
Gitrey discovered a program called the Fourth R that focuses on healthy relationships, something that made sense to her as a way to prevent bullying and build strong children. She attended training for that program and is eager to put it in action at her granddaughter’s school.
The ‘Fourth R’
Reading, writing and arithmetic make up a traditional curriculum, but at least one authority suggests schools should also teach a fourth R — Relationships.
Jeff Temple, a psychology professor in the Behavioral Health and Research Department at the University of Texas Medical Branch, is leading a study of “Fourth R,” a program that teaches ways to resolve conflicts, deal with peer pressure and prevent violence. The medical branch got a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in September to study the program.
Understanding relationships can help prevent bullying, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy and other risky behaviors with peers, Temple said.
“Bullying is not just ‘kids will be kids,’” Temple said. “It can screw up future relationships.”
Many well-meaning people start programs to stop bullying, often after a tragedy, but the programs aren’t research-based and aren’t effective, Temple said. One program Temple singled out as not research-based is Rachel’s Challenge, an anti-bullying program that some public and private schools have used.
“Schools just jump on these things,” Temple said. Rachel’s Challenge, which encourages students to be kind, might be a good program, he said.
“But it is not evidence-based and has no evidence to suggest it is effective,” Temple said. “On the contrary, there are evidence-based programs that we know work. Schools should use these known effective programs.”
The Fourth R program is research-based and is a curriculum that can replace a health class, Temple said. The focus on relationships helps students deal with risky situations and peer pressure. Teachers address substance abuse prevention, sexual responsibility and bullying by teaching skills needed in healthy relationships.
About 20 people attended a Fourth R presentation April 4 at Stevenson Middle School in Houston.
The adults participated in a lesson by breaking into two groups that stood across from each other. They wrote down one consequence of drinking on a piece of paper, then crumpled the paper and threw it across the room near the other group. Then, they picked up a random crumbled note nearest to them wrote a response and threw the paper back.
It was a short exercise that took about 10 minutes, but it demonstrated an emphasis Fourth R puts on active participation, Temple said.
Some Texas schools are using Fourth R in eighth or ninth grade in place of a health class, which is not a state-required course, Temple said.
He would prefer to see the program in every grade, starting with a nuanced approach in elementary school and building on relationship skills through high school and maybe even college, Temple said.
In defense of self-defense
“Let’s get ready, let’s go to work,” John Lammons said at the beginning of a jiu jitsu class. A dozen children practiced scurrying out of holds, evading hits and preventing anyone from overpowering them physically.
Lammons owns Anaconda Jiu-Jitsu, 1922 Strand, and he promotes the Brazilian martial art as a bully prevention program.
“We teach how to control an attacker without hurting him,” Lammons said.
He slowly demonstrates some moves with his hands up and in front.
“Everything is based on leverage,” he said. “Keep your hands out to block.”
His advice for dealing with a bully is mostly contrary to what schools want.
Nonetheless, he’s committed to getting his students to follow certain steps. First, avoid the fight, he said. If you are attacked, use jiu jitsu. Try talking to the bully, and if that doesn’t work, then tell somebody. If it happens again, tackle the bully. And by all means, establish a timeline of these events and document them, Lammons said.
School officials discourage most of this advice, and Lammons knows that. He emphasizes that this is about controlling a bully and holding him in a such a way that he cannot move, Lammons said.
Learning to deal with conflict
Principal Holly LaRoe looked out over the cafeteria in Texas City High School and realized something needed to change. Too many students sat alone at small tables, she said.
“I ordered larger cafeteria tables for more groups to sit together,” LaRoe said. “No one should eat alone.”
Two of her students — Brandy Vela and Bailie Lundy — killed themselves this year. The two were victims of bullies.
“Honestly, we need time to heal,” LaRoe said. “We have to be very careful about what we do. We’re taking baby steps.”
Two of her students came forward with an idea to have an anti-bullying campaign and get students to sign petitions to not bully. One was Michelle Vela, Brandy Vela’s younger sister.
The school is using a cellphone app called P3 that allows students to anonymously report bullying or other concerns, LaRoe said. Students can also sign up for free daily texts with positive affirmations. The school also offers the Fourth R as an elective.
Temple was a source of information and advice following the suicides, LaRoe said. She valued that he was a local authority on the subject.
Sometimes what students or parents consider bullying could be more about conflict, LaRoe said.
“We are working on social-emotional learning,” she said.
CCISD is ‘label free’
“We have spent almost a decade working on language,” Amy Killgore, a prevention specialist with Clear Creek ISD said. “We do not refer to children as bullies.”
The label “bully” can do a lot of harm, she said. Instead, the district focuses on bullying as a behavior.
“It is a moment in time,” Killgore said. “It does not define you. It’s a decision you make. But you get to make another decision.”
She echoes some of LaRoe’s points about distinguishing between bullying and conflict. She stresses the district’s definition of bullying as being a repeated, intentional behavior.
The district has anti-bullying lessons in place, starting from the elementary level through middle school and high school.
“Bullying is about relationships,” Killgore said. “We address it not as a program, but it’s all day, every day in every situation. You have a hard time being cruel to someone or unkind to someone when you get to know them.”
For parents who want help for children who are bullied and for those children who bully others, the district offers resources, Killgore said. That includes giving them a list of places to go for counseling.
“We can’t do one-on-one guidance,” she said. “We offer supportive guidance.”
Other school districts hand out similar lists.
Gitrey recalls that when she volunteered at one La Marque school, one guidance counselor was on staff for 700 students, she said.
Audits, systems, processes
William “Bud” Collier of Webster started his organization, I’m Bully Free, with optimistic expectations. Collier works at NASA and conducts audits of systems. His idea was to audit bully policies in schools.
He offered his professional evaluation services to school districts, but they weren’t interested, he said.
“I wanted to do free assessments at schools,” Collier said. “I got pushback.”
He offered to bring anti-bullying awareness programs into schools with celebrities who live in the greater Houston area, and school districts would schedule one-time events, but that’s it, he said.
The awareness programs are a big part of the nonprofit organization’s work reaching more than 50,000 children in 2016. But Collier has also become an advocate for parents who can’t get answers from school officials when their child is bullied. One of the first things he does when he gets a call is to go online and find the school district’s policy on bullying.
Then he conducts an audit.
Most school districts fail his audit because their policies lack any process, he said.
“The law says that the schools shall have a policy,” Collier said. “So many of them copy and paste the same policy that basically says, ‘We have a policy.’”
All policy, no process
But what they don’t say is who is trained and who will accomplish different tasks, or what procedures are in place once someone complains of bullying, or what the follow ups should be and when they should be done, he said.
“How many audits do I need to do?” he said. “If everyone has the same document, that sets off a bell with me. It’s a red flag.”
Dorene Philpot, a Galveston attorney specializing in special education law, also wants a paper trail, she said.
“What I would like to see is schools have some kind of accountability,” Philpot said.
Her document flow would begin with a notice to the victim of receipt of a complaint.
“Complaints go into a black hole never to be seen again,” she said. Parents and victims would feel validated if they got a receipt.
Next, the school would issue a notice to the alleged perpetrator, and after that would come an investigation with findings of fact, another document that parents and victims would get.
“There are investigations where no victim, perpetrator or witness was interviewed,” Philpot said. “I kid you not, that happens.”
What does often happen is school safety officers write down what a school administrator tells them happened, Philpot said.
Research offers hope
A study of Baltimore, Maryland schools found that bullying had decreased over 10 years. The journal “Pediatrics” published the study in its June 2017 issue. An NPR blog touted the study as good news that others chose to ignore, but the study has significant problems, other researchers said.
The Baltimore study not only looked at just one city, it excluded entire groups of students such as children in special education programs. Students in those programs are bullied more often than others, according to studies and experts The Daily News interviewed for this series, including Philpot.
The Baltimore study also excluded students in alternative education programs. A disproportionate number of students in alternative schools are actually victims of bullies who got in trouble after retaliating, Dorothy Espelage, a psychologist at the University of Florida who researches bullying, said. Also, the school district paid the researchers to conduct the study, she said.
“It’s just one snapshot,” Espelage said.
The study does offer hope, though, that a focused and funded anti-bullying program can make a difference, Espelage said.
Bullying is a public health crisis, according to the National Academy of Math and Sciences and the Center for Disease Control.
Fifth graders who are bullied are more likely to show signs of depression by seventh grade and are more likely to drink and do drugs by 10th grade, a University of Delaware and Boston Children’s Hospital study found.
That study was published in the May issue of the journal “Pediatrics.”
“Bullying isn’t an even playing field,” Valerie Earnshaw, a researcher at the University of Delaware and one of the authors of the study, said. “It’s very harmful for people who are experiencing it. The effects last into high school and adulthood. We all need to take bullying seriously.”
Researching bullying behaviors and patterns is crucial to finding answers, Earnshaw said.
It takes a community
Bully prevention should be a class in school, Gitrey said.
“My daughter had to take a class on teen pregnancy that was mandatory because it was a public health issue,” Gitrey said. “So is bullying.”
As Gitrey searched for ways she could prevent bullying, she heard about the Fourth R program and met with Jeff Temple in the Behavioral Health and Research Department at the University of Texas Medical Center.
“I want to bring this to the community,” she said.
The focus on relationships as the key to preventing risky behavior such as bullying made sense, she said.
“I saw very few healthy relationships growing up,” she said. “Where am I going to learn this?”
Temple arranged for Gitrey to attend Fourth R training. She got a certificate of appreciation from her granddaughter’s school for her efforts. But Gitrey didn’t do it for a piece of paper or to be the best grandmother in the room. She’s doing it because the researcher in her wants to see whether it works. She’s doing it to find the hard numbers and outcomes, she said.
“When you are going into something like this, you need data,” she said.