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Bullying not specific to schools, solutions aren't either

SALT LAKE CITY — There is no easy fix for bullying in public schools, educators say, because bullying is not simply a school problem, it's a community problem.

That and other messages about combating and understanding bullying are the focus of a three-day national conference under way at the University of Utah.

"This is not a kid issue, it is not an adult issue. It's a community issue," said keynote speaker Susan Swearer in her address Wednesday. Swearer is an associate psychology professor at the University of Nebraska and an author of books and articles about bullying.

Swearer is one of several speakers to participate in the annual conference conducted by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center for Community Caring, which is housed in the U.'s college of education.

Part of the complexity that comes with addressing bullying is that mean or dominating behavior is often rewarded, Swearer said.

"It's not the stereotypical rejected kid who nobody likes," Swearer said of community bullies. They can have "high social status" and be lauded local athletes or honor students.

What's more, "some of those behaviors are really rewarded at our adult level in our society. … If we bully, then we get the power, we get the good stuff."

Swearer addressed cyber bullying, which has received a lot of attention in the past year, with many linking adolescent suicides to digital harassment. Oftentimes, bullying that happens online on social networking sites or cellphones is even more rude or threatening than in-person bullying. That's likely because kids don't see the hurt they cause.

"There's a real absence of social cueing," she said. "They don't see the reaction."

Some cyber bullying is particularly difficult to get a handle on because it can happen day and night, Swearer said.

Young people can blast mean text messages to dozens of their peers in an instant, or put rude messages on their Facebook pages.

Carol Fults is a second-grade reading specialist at Eastwood Elementary in Salt Lake City. She said she opted to attend the conference because she works with students who struggle with their reading skills and who might be sensitive about it.

"A lot of those children might be dealing with issues of self-esteem," Fults said.

Even in early grades, when kids might not have personal cellphones, they can say unkind things to each other, Fults said. So it's good to know how to help both the students who are being targeted and the ones being mean.

"I just don't think they understand their actions are hurtful to others," she said.

Swearer said all bullying has negative psychological effects, but it hit some students especially hard.

Several teen suicides in the past year related to bullying have received national media attention, but that doesn't necessarily mean bullying is always the solitary cause.

"They have a vulnerability and bullying ... is the tipping point," Swearer said.

That's why parents and educators need to watch out for students who might be prone to struggle with depression or suicidal thoughts so they can step in when they see others bully the children.

Knowing how to deal effectively with students who bully can be hard for administrators, with some expelling students outright, she said. Some states have passed zero-tolerance laws which are "extremely punitive" for those who bully.

While it's good to discourage bullying behavior, it's important students aren't vilified. While they might be harming others, it's vital to correct the behavior without disparaging kids.

"It's not as if there's some evil, wild-seed child who is doing the bullying behavior," she said. "Regular people are bullies."

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