10 Questions with…
SCUSD Bullying Prevention Specialist Jessica Wharton

e-Connections Post

October is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, an opportunity for the community to learn about bullying and how it can be stopped. Here, SCUSD’s Bullying Prevention Specialist Jessica Wharton discusses bullying myths and facts and offers helpful suggestions for parents.

Name: Jessica Wharton

Age: 43

Hometown: Sacramento

Education: BA, Social Sciences (module: psychology), UC Irvine (1993); MA, Counseling Psychology, National University, Sacramento (1998); Certificate in Advanced Spanish, Cuauhnahuac Language School, Mexico (1998); Pupil Personnel Services Credential, National University, Sacramento (2001); Preliminary Administrative Services Credential, CSU Sacramento (2008)                

Previously: Worked in the Student Support and Health Services Department for 12 years, coordinating student and family support services at both Bret Harte and Oak Ridge elementary schools.Taught first and second grade at a bilingual school in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Favorite Quote: “Have only one rule: Be your wild, courageous, brilliant self every single day. No matter what.” — Leigh Standley

1. How does the district define bullying?

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that is intended to do harm, repeated over time, and involves an imbalance of power.

Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and/or excluding someone from a group.

2. What are some common misconceptions about bullying?

There are several misconceptions, but here are a few common ones:

  • “All bullies are loners and have no friends.” Often times, students who engage in bullying behavior have many friends.
  • “Bullies struggle with self-esteem.” This is a myth because students who engage in bullying behavior may have good self-esteem: They actually have little or no empathy.
  • “Bullying isn’t a big deal; it’s just kids being kids.” Bullying is actually a very big issue and one that can have long term negative effects for our students if left unaddressed.
  • “My children would tell me if they were being bullied.” According to data, approximately 50 to 75 percent of students don’t report bullying for fear of retaliation or not having the incident(s) taken seriously.
  • “Bullying doesn’t happen at my child’s school.” Bullying happens everywhere.
  • “Bullying is easy to spot.” Bullying behavior is not easy to spot, and can be very covert at times. Open communication with students and paying attention to warning signs can help identify bullying.

3. SCUSD is recognized as a regional leader in bullying prevention and awareness. What has the district done in the past in this area and what is it doing now?

Bullying can affect everyone: Those who are bullied, those who engage in bullying behavior, and those who witness bullying. Bullying also affects the family members of those involved. 

In an effort to take a comprehensive approach to these issues, SCUSD Student Support and Health Services Department established a Bullying Prevention Task Force in October 2009. This task force developed the district’s strategic plan on bullying prevention and called for the creation of a full-time position (Bullying Prevention Specialist) to address bullying prevention district-wide. For the 2014-15 school year, we will continue to implement the strategic plan, as well as relevant school board policy, state law, reporting requirements and response procedures. 

For schools, one of the best ways to address bullying prevention is to assess their school climate and take a layered approach to prevention.  This involves educating site administrators, school staff, parents, and putting bullying prevention/pro-social curriculum in the classes for students. Currently, many of our schools are implementing this layered approach and reporting a positive increase in their school climate.

The success at schools and of the implementation of the strategic plan is largely due to the several collaborative partnerships that the district has established to support this effort.

4. What signs in a child’s behavior might indicate that he or she is a victim of bullying?

  • Unexplainable injuries
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
  • Feelings of helplessness or decreased self esteem
  • Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry
  • Frequent headaches or stomachaches, feeling sick or faking illness
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
  • Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves, or talking about suicide

5. If you suspect your child has been bullied, what should you do? Or what shouldn’t you do?

Here are some things to do if you suspect your child is being bullied:

  • Be a positive role model
  • Validate your child’s experiences
  • Teach your child that aggressive behavior is hurtful
  • Educate them on how to handle problems in a peaceful manner
  • With younger children, spend some time at their school site
  • Understand the policies, procedures, and laws in place for addressing bullying
  • If cyberbullying, block the bully (phone, screen names, email)
  • Save the evidence (print or screen shot), if possible

Here are some things you should not teach your kids:

  • “Ignore the bully.” Although well-intentioned, this can be a very heartless response. How can we expect children to ignore peer abuse?
  • “You are too sensitive.” Most children just wanted to be validated about their experiences. This is one way to invalidate them.
  • “I’ll handle it.” Brainstorm with your child about what s/he might be able to do on their own to handle the situation. This will help your child develop feelings of competence.

6. Has the rise in social media triggered more bullying or a different kind of bullying?

I believe social media has triggered a different kind of bullying: Cyberbullying. Technology has created great opportunities for worldwide communication, but as with everything, there is potential for negative side-effects, and these side-effects, such as cyberbullying, sometimes result in tragedy. 

Social media and all the new apps that are introduced daily have opened the door for young people to experience bullying that makes them vulnerable and invades their lives in a variety of ways – and sometimes results in communication that is abusive, cruel, humiliating, and even threatening.

7. What might prompt a child to bully others? Are bullies bad kids?

This is a very complex question. Children who lack adult supervision/discipline or who have experienced some type of trauma are more likely to engage in bullying behavior. Students who engage in bullying behavior may also be lacking positive, supportive relationships with adults.

While these characteristics do not equate to bullying, those who engage in bullying behavior tend to be more aggressive, impulsive, and dominating. This does not mean that if your child has these traits he will be a bully, but it does mean that parents need to be aware of any of these risk factors that may be present. When raised in a positive home environment with appropriate discipline, children with these traits can learn empathy and compassion, which puts them at a lower risk for engaging in bullying.

Students who engage in bullying behavior are not bad kids.  We don’t like to label ANY child, as it can be harmful and actually reinforce their negative behaviors. We also do not believe that there are “bad kids” – rather students who make poor choices, such as engaging in bullying behaviors.

8. What’s a good day in your job look like?

A good day is when students, parents, school staff, and administrators come together collaboratively to develop a plan that embraces making positive changes to improve school climate.

9. How has working to raise bullying awareness changed you personally?

After personally becoming more aware about bullying, I realize how many others are not.  We need to educate all involved – students, parents, school staff, administrators, community partners, etc.

I’ve always been a very strength-based person – looking at someone’s strengths before their areas of concern. With that said, I realize that students who engage in bullying behavior need just as much assistance as the students who are targeted.

10. In the past, people may have considered being bullied just a part of growing up. Is that attitude changing?

I believe it is.  Although the term “bullying” is very overused and often misused (due to lack of education about the term), I think people are beginning to take reports more seriously and are looking at their school sites through another lens – one that promotes social-emotional learning, pro-social behaviors, and one that views students as whole people with complex lives in need of a range of role models and supports.