AYER/SHIRLEY -- Bullying is one of those unfortunate experiences that some consider to be a rite of passage for school-aged children.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, close to half of all children will experience school bullying at some point while they are at primary or secondary school, and at least 10 percent of children are bullied regularly.
This form of intimidation may include physical domination or may be in the form of verbal and emotional abuse.
What makes bullying even more pervasive today than it was a generation ago are the advent of the Internet and advances in social media and cellphone technology. It is now common for children to be bullied through text messages, Instagram, KiK Messenger, ooVoo video chat and instant messaging, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and so many other social media applications that it is hard for almost any parent to keep track.
Checking your children's social media communications, however, is essential.
So said Page Hilltop Elementary School guidance counselor Betsy Dolan at the recent Ayer-Shirley Education Foundation-sponsored showing of the 2011 documentary "Bully." The screening in the Ayer-Shirley Regional Middle School auditorium was followed by a panel discussion of school administrators and staff.
"If you allow Instagram, Facebook, ooVoo, then require your child to give you their password and have your own account," Dolan advised during the panel discussion. "A lot happens on these accounts outside of school."
The movie "Bully," directed by Lee Hirsch, follows the lives of five students who face bullying on a daily basis. The film's director, a victim of bullying as a child himself, decided to make a documentary so that the hidden lives of bullied children would be brought into the open.
The students featured in the movie are a middle-schooler from South Dakota who is mercilessly taunted and abused both at school and on the school bus; a 16-year-old lesbian and student athlete from Oklahoma who is ostracized by virtually every student in her high school; and a 14-year-old Mississippi girl who brings a gun onto the bus after being taunted and is then charged with 45 felony counts.
Also featured are the families of an 11- and 17-year-old boy whose bullying is said to have led to their suicides.
In a formal panel discussion facilitated by ASEF member Sheila Kelly, five school district faculty members answered questions related to the movie, which moved many in the audience to tears.
On the panel were Ayer-Shirley Regional High School Principal Brian Haas, Ayer-Shirley Regional Middle School Principal and Vice Principal Rich McGrath and Berta Aikey, Ayer-Shirley Regional School District school psychologist Kathy Kenyon, and Dolan.
In response to Kelly's opening question about how bullying is defined, Aikey prefaced her response by saying she would "never be that assistant principal" in the movie.
Her reference was to a vice principal who forced a boy being bullied by another student to shake hands with the perpetrator, adding insult to injury by telling him that if he did not, he was "just the same" as the bully.
The vice principal's handling of various situations throughout the movie drew audible groans from many of those seated in the audience.
"(Bullying) is something that happens over and over again," Aikey said. "It's not necessarily physical, and it is not just being mean.
"Kids can be ostracized and pushed aside, and that's a form of bullying we take very seriously," she said.
Kenyon, who counsels students at the Lura A. White and Page Hilltop Elementary Schools, said there is a difference between teasing and bullying, and that she tries to focus on each individual situation brought to her.
"Bullying is not just being mean, but the power ratio," she said. From the time that students are in pre-K, the schools work with them to teach them how to be friends and get along.
"We have to be careful not to take it lightly, but not to overuse the word 'bully,'" she said.
Kelly echoed Kenyon's sentiments, adding, "We need to talk about empathy. We don't want to overuse the term 'bully,' but it needs to be addressed. What is at the heart of it all?"
McGrath explained that kids are not always coming from the best homes, but that it is sometimes the kids with a lot of friends who tend to bully.
Someone may bully someone and get other kids to laugh, he said. The other kids don't want to be targets of that child's bullying, so they figure they will be his friend and go along with it.
For girls, "She is my friend, but you can't be her friend," is often at the root of an issue, he said.
"Somehow girls are very good at nonverbal peer aggression," Dolan later asserted.
She also said bullying could be exacerbated by "a lack of empathy, lack of anger about what is happening, and a lack of circling the wagons."
"Usually it's the kids who see it, but not the school. The kids and paraprofessionals are often my best eyes and ears. Bullying is usually not done during instructional times."
That is why she keeps a pile of Post-It notes on her desk, so that students can quietly let her know if they suspect that another student is being harassed or is depressed.
"Document, document, document," she tells students. "List the dates and what happens.
"The kids look very sweet in front of me because they know I'm there. We need to know about aggression on a repeated basis," she said.
Kelly recommended that parents view the Anderson Cooper 360 special "The Bully Effect," which can be found at ac360.blogs.cnn.com/category/the-bully-effect.
The documentary follows the lives of the families who were featured in "Bully" as well as the filmmaker.
Advice for parents
Haas said he feels that the 2010 Massachusetts bullying prevention law has been a positive for the school district.
The law, known as An Act Relative to Bullying, requires teachers and other school staff to report bullying to the principal or another administrator picked to handle reports when they see or become aware of it. It mandates annual training for teachers and staff on prevention and intervention, and calls for instruction on heading off bullying for students in every grade level as part of the curriculum.
"I hope schools are a place parents look to as allies," said Haas. "Call, make an appointment, come in. Let us know what you know. It definitely opens the communication so we know what's going on.
"We want kids to be successful. If my parents don't say anything, I would feel my parents aren't supporting me."
"It doesn't help to hear (about bullying) second- or third-hand," advised Dolan. "If you discuss it with an adult friend, please let us know as well. If someone is not being appropriate with your child at school, we really need to know."
"It is a really positive thing when students see that it is OK to ask for help," added McGrath. "Especially for young boys, it is good for them to see that you can advocate for yourself and others. Don't hold back; talk to us. We want to hear everything, and we do."
"You create the culture from the top down," said Aikey, later adding, "We create an environment where (students) feel safe coming forward."
"We would rather hear about trivial little things than not hear about what is going on," McGrath said. "Communication is huge to build that climate."
Dolan added that TADS, Teenage Anxiety and Depression Solutions, offers a community resource to connect people with the phone numbers of mental-health professionals with whom they can discuss the specifics of their mental-health concerns.
The MA School of Professional Psychology INTERFACE Helpline, available for Ayer-Shirley, Concord-Carlisle, Groton-Dunstable, Harvard, Littleton and Westford residents, among others, is 888-244-6843, ext. 1411 . It is available Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information, visit msppinterface.org.