Fort Worth, Texas,
15:18 PM

Bullying is a ‘serious public health problem’

A Cook Children’s psychologist addresses zero-tolerance policies and cyberbullying

The days of the schoolyard tough guy taking your lunch money may seem old-fashioned compared to the complex and often non-stop form of bullying that kids have to deal with today.

A report released this week by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine calls bullying a “serious public health problem” and says the zero-tolerance policies schools use to automatically suspend students for bullying are ineffective.

Lisa Elliott, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and clinic manager of Cook Children’s Behavioral Health Clinic in Denton, agrees.

“There are so many reasons why zero-tolerance policies don’t work. It’s primarily lip service to look good, but without back bone or laws to support the effort,” Elliott said. “The policy is clearly not working. We aren’t looking at the issues and not addressing the problems. We aren’t teaching children effective tools to handle bullying or conflict.”

Elliott is simply fed up. She’s seen too many kids come into her office depressed, frightened or even suicidal because they can’t get away from their bully or bullies.

“I think that bullying is worse than ever before because of cyberbullying,” Elliott said. “Kids can’t get a break.”

May parents in Cook Children’s six-county service region agree. According to the 2015 Community-wide Children’s Health Assessment & Planning Survey (CCHAPS), 16 percent of parents said their child has been bullied, compared to 10 percent in 2012.

Elliott says there are four types of bullying: physical, verbal relationship (or social) and cyberbullying. Each form of bullying is harmful alone, however combined they are even more harmful and powerful.

Elliott points to the death of David Molak, a 16-year old San Antonio boy, as an example of the harm that his family believes comes from the constant harassment a child receives in the world of cyber bullying.

“In today’s age, bullies don’t push you into lockers, they don’t tell their victims to meet them behind the school’s dumpster after class, they cower behind user names and fake profiles from miles away constantly berating and abusing good, innocent people,” Cliff Molak, the boy’s brother, said in a Facebook post that went viral.

Since the death of David, the Molak family has been working to get “David’s Law” passed in Texas, which would address the issue of cyberbullying in Texas and hold those charged with harassment on social media to pay at least a $500 fee or spend up to a year in prison. State legislation will vote on the law in 2017.

“We need consequences for the people responsible for this kind of bullying and harassment,” Elliott said. “Right now cyberbullying isn’t defined in the Texas harassment statute. A law like David’s law is about someone getting picked on around the clock. This is about constant bullying, where the kids feel like there’s no escape.”

No child is bully-proof. Elliott offers parents the following talking points when speaking to their child about bullying:

  • Even people who say they're your friends can bully you.
  • You should confront your friends when they're being hurtful to you or others.
  • Retaliating may feel good temporarily, but refusing to stoop to the bully's level will win you more popularity in the long run.
  • When you hear a false rumor, just ignore it and be yourself.
  • You're most likeable when you respect yourself and others.
  • Bullies usually have their own insecurities. Returning meanness with kindness is the best way to break down their defense.

And in the end to let kids know that they may be the best resources to end bullying where they live.

Researchers from Princeton, Rutgers University and Yale University found that kids could greatly reduce the amount of bullying and student conflict just by spreading the message against bullying. The engaged group of influential students in 56 New Jersey middle schools spread the message about the dangers of bullying using messaging platforms such as Instagram, print posters and colorful wristbands. They discussed how to handle conflict in their own way with the peers. The team saw a 30 percent drop in student conflict reports.

“Kids have to be involved and they have to stand up to the bullies,” Elliott said. “The kids are the teachers in the moment. We need to empower our children to be the game changers.”

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