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Nobody likes a bully

Getting stuffed into a locker is not funny or fun. It’s bullying. That’s the message a group of eighth grade students at Oak Harbor Middle School are trying to get across to their peers with a conceptual art project and video.

Students in two of art teacher Matt Young’s classes have plastered the school with anti-bullying art, from small posters to words on mirrors.

In getting across the message that bullying is bad, Young said the students were encouraged to use words in specific locations that would reflect their meaning.

For example, student Sel Hazelo put the words, “Don’t let bullying distract you” on each of the steps in the C wing of the school. He explained the purpose was for people to read the words, and be distracted.

“One of my friends actually tripped and fell,” Hazelo said, boasting the success of his message.

Bryan Larsen wore his message, an orange jail jumpsuit, on loan from the Island County Jail, with a slogan on the back that the wearer might tell a judge: “It’s not my fault, he was just a wimp.” Larsen wore the jail outfit for his role in a video being shot on campus by videographer Doug Dirkson.

Mahalah Williams and Tommy Schroeder collaborated on a poster that portrayed Schroeder huddled in a corner, with the message: “Don’t let bullying keep you in a corner.” They displayed the poster in the corner that they had photographed.

Schroeder, who moved to Oak Harbor recently with his Navy family, said he knew first-hand what it felt like to be picked on, or bullied. Several years ago at a school in Virginia Beach, Virg., he was singled out as the new kid in weird clothes, and taunted for wearing “highwaters.”

“You feel like you’re nothing,” he said.

Schroeder said he hadn’t experienced treatment like that at Oak Harbor Middle School, but classmate Caitlin White said there were plenty of bullies at the school.

“I think it’s a big problem,” she said. “I know lots of them. They have their own table in the lunch room.”

While she described this group as those who dressed in black and wore accessories such as menacing, spiked leather “dog collars,” she admitted looks aren’t the only indicator of bully potential.

“The ‘Abercrombie and Fitch’ kids can be just as hateful,” she said, referring to the popular clothing store.

Assistant Principal Matt Cobb agreed with that assessment.

“Some look and act the part, others don’t,” he said. He also sees as much potential for bullying among girls as boys.

Despite laws, bullying goes unreported

Schools across the state have stepped up their enforcement of anti-bullying rules in response to a state law passed last year. By August all school districts are required to adopt or amend policies to prohibit the “harassment, intimidation, or bullying of any student.” A committee in the Oak Harbor School District is working on drafting recommended adjustments to the district’s policy.

Cobb said the state law brought the issue of school bullying to the forefront, but local schools have always had policies to deal with threats to student safety.

“The level of discipline matches the level of the incident,” Cobb said.

Disciplinary action ranges from conflict resolution to suspension or expulsion.

The most serious incident of the school year in the district happened in November at Oak Harbor Middle School, when a 13-year-old student brought a handgun to school. He had a bullet for the gun in his pocket. The boy, who was immediately expelled, told police he brought the gun to school because he had concerns for his safety, and felt threatened by other students.

Principal Joyce Swanson said at the time that the school had no reports of the boy having been harassed.

Part of the school’s response plan is to take every reported incident seriously. Cobb estimates they receive an average of two complaints a week.

“We spend a lot of time investigating every complaint,” Cobb said.

However, getting students to come forward can be a problem.

Art student David Boulton said if he was the victim of a bully or saw someone else being bullied he would not tell a teacher or school administrator, out of fear of retaliation. Other students in the art project felt the same way.

“They say go to the office, but it’s doesn’t help,” Miaya Rivers said. Rivers had never been bullied, she felt she could just take it in stride, at least if it was just verbal.

“I don’t take offense,” she said. “ I know it’s not true.”

First high school years hardest

At the high school level, Principal Dick Devlin said the school sees the most discipline problems of this type in the lower grades, with a lessening in the upper grades.

“They have learned more sophisticated ways of dealing with each other,” Devlin said of the upperclassmen.

Devlin said the school handbook carries a clear message that the school does not tolerate bullying or harassment, but admits they don’t know how prevalent it is at the high school because some cases may go unreported.

It’s the old “Code of the West” mentality, he said, in which students don’t want to inform on others, preferring to handle it themselves.

“Kids have a tendency to want to resolve these things among themselves,” he said.

With a number of students transferring in throughout the school year, Devlin said they get some students with a “gang wannabe” attitude.

“They quickly learn we do business differently in Oak Harbor than in Compton (a suburb of Los Angeles),” he said.

The high school has also had success with a peer conflict resolution team. Students who are reported for bullying meet with the group to work out a solution at the ground level, before the matter has to be handed over to school officials.

Devlin said the island system, in which ninth grade students don’t mingle with the upper grades, has probably helped to keep down the incidence of harassment of the smaller, younger students.

The perils of advancing from being eighth grade top dogs to lowly freshmen is not lost on Matt Young’s students.

“They are going to be scared,” he said. “This is very visceral to them. They really feel it.”

Young hopes his art lesson will also be a life lesson for these students, a lesson in how to avoid being either a victim or a perpetrator of acts of violence.

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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