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Facing bullies head-on

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For North Dakota high schoolers, bullying remains a persistent problem.

In 2017, about one in every four high school students in the state said they had been bullied on school property, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics. That figure held steady in 2015, 2013 and 2011, the years during which the CDC conducted its high school youth risk behavior survey.

In 2009, the percent of bullied high school students was slightly less at around 21 percent. Last week, the issue of bullying re-emerged in Grand Forks when Somali families at South Middle School alleged several instances of racially motivated bullying.

Not all students who are victims of bullying are driven to suicide, but researchers have established a link between the two behaviors.

"We know that bullying behavior and suicide-related behavior are closely related," CDC officials wrote in a 2014 report on bullying and student suicides. "It is correct to say that involvement in bullying, along with other risk factors, increases the chance that a young person will engage in suicide-related behaviors."

Taking steps

Leaders at the Grand Forks Public School District say they've been taking a series of steps to tackle both issues head-on. Those efforts include counseling services for students, along with a comprehensive curriculum aimed at improving conflict resolution skills, said Catherine Gillach, assistant superintendent of secondary education.

"We have a really comprehensive program in place as early as preschool," she said.

The curriculum is designed to teach students various skills, such as self regulation and self calming. It also addresses character traits such as empathy.

"If you think about a situation where someone is truly bullying someone else, there are skills that are lacking in those scenarios," Gillach said. "We have curriculum that teaches kids about slowing down and thinking twice before they speak or post or act."

The district also implements a system known as "positive behavioral interventions and supports," which involves collecting data on a variety of behaviors, including bullying. Schools can then use that information to evaluate the effectiveness of their character-building curricula, according to Gillach.

"We have the curriculum, but then we have a way to kind of get a pulse on whether or not that curriculum is working by collecting that disciplinary data and going back and revisiting things as we need to," she said.

When bullying does happen, schools have a range of options to deal with it, Gillach said. For instance, if no one was hurt physically, school leaders may sit down with two students and try to mediate directly. In addition, schools can discipline repeat bullies with in-school suspensions or detentions.

The district also may bring in outside consultants to work with students on persistent bullying issues, Gillach said.

Gillach also emphasized the difference between simple conflicts and bullying. A conflict could refer to a single instance of two students exchanging terse words in a hallway, for instance. But bullying refers to an ongoing series of conflicts, Gillach said. The term also could refer to ongoing threats to intimidate other students.

"Bullying is one of those terms that a lot of times will be alleged right off the bat," Gillach said. "So what we have to do is vet out whether any sort of negative instance that occurs between two students is an instance of just a conflict."

Still, school leaders likely will take some kind of action in either case, she said.

In addition, suicide prevention is "very much embedded" in all the district's work with students, Gillach said.

"One of the best programs that we've started to institute in the last couple years is 'Sources of Strength,'" she said. The program establishes peer leaders in schools to help identify students who may be struggling with mental health issues. The so-called "evidence-based" program is designed to build hope among students experiencing trauma.

More work needed

Not everyone in the community thinks the district is doing all it can to prevent bullying and suicides. Tina Randle, whose son, Jonathan Black, committed suicide as a Grand Forks Central High School sophomore, said there's room for improvement. At the time of his death, Black was the victim of bullying at the hands of several other students, Randle said.

In Randle's view, Central in particular "still is not understanding" and "still is not putting in the effort" to help stem both bullying and suicidal behavior. Randle said having open, frank conversations about suicide is the best way to prevent it.

"It's being hidden. Nobody wants to talk about it," Randle said. "Students continue to tell me that they're told they need to just buck up and grow up. You can't do that with mental health. Mental health is just like any other disease."

Randle said that Red River High School, on the other hand, is making some positive strides in addressing the issue. The school employs a counselor who has a daughter who had attempted suicide. In Randle's view, that's given the counselor more insight into the importance of mental health.

"He gets it. That's why he's been doing what he can at the school to get them to understand," she said. "There are going to be more students who lose their lives if things don't change."

In instances of the death of a student or faculty member, schools typically will alert students in small groups, Gillach said. That could take place in a homeroom, for example.

"We make sure there's a personal contact with an adult in the building," she said.

In addition, schools will ask the family of a deceased student whether to share details surrounding that student's death, according to Gillach.

Dan Niepow

Niepow covers social and community issues for the Grand Forks Herald. Before joining the paper, he worked as a magazine writer and editor. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he currently resides over the river in East Grand Forks, Minn. To reach Niepow with story ideas, send him an email at dniepow@gfherald.com or call him at (701) 780-1110. Follow him on Twitter @dniep.

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