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Bullying the topic of Forum in Grand Rapids

March 2, 2011

Yesterday there was an anti-bullying forum hosted by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission at Union High School in Grand Rapids. The forum was organized into two blocks of time, with a series of invited speakers who addressed the issue of bullying first, followed by public comment.

A representative of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission stated up front that they are using these kinds of forums as an opportunity to get input from the public in determining what kind of policy recommendations they will make.

The first person to address the Commission was Josh Lator, with the Michigan State Police. He addressed the emerging trends in technology and how that contributes to the ways in which bullying is manifested today in what is called cyber-bullying. Emerging technology shows that students are bullied not only at school, but throughout the day through digital formats – texting, Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools. Sgt. Lator gives the example of how a news story perpetuated bullying, by doing a story about a form of bullying that was caught on video and posted online. Unfortunately the TV station ran the video and told viewers that it would be linked off of their station’s website.

The next speaker to address the Commission was Michele Kominski, who talked about workplace bullying. Workplace bullying can come in the form of intimidating co-workers, harassment, making fun of and demeaning workers, often perpetrated by employers or supervisors. This is quite common and she cited a study that says that 13% of the workforce has been bullied in the past year. It is more common in some occupations, such as nursing where just over 50% of the nurses surveyed said they were bullied. One of the consequences of this for workers is higher absenteeism, which results in economic costs for employers. The speaker said that Healthy Workplace legislation would help to provide some advocacy for workers and a mechanism for accountability.

Another speaker was Martha Cortez Gonzalez, with the Hispanic Center of West Michigan. Their organization does a great deal of work with youth, which serves roughly 350 youth throughout the year. Gonzalez says that there are 5 distinct Latino gangs in Grand Rapids and this is an issue that they have done both research and work around. Of the 100 youth they have interviewed in the last 2 years all have said that bullying was something that they experienced as a tool that was being used by people who want them to either join a gang or because they were the target of gang activity. Martha also said that the local news media needs to make some changes in order to address their role in bullying.  She stated that local media is culpable in these dynamics, particularly because of the vicious comments that are allowed online after articles where people can intimidate and harass people without giving an identity. This is an issue we have noted with the Grand Rapids Press online partner MLive.

Julio Woods, from the US Attorney’s Office for West Michigan spoke next. She suggests that schools need to have a protocol that will allow students to file complaints and to prosecute students who are engaged in bullying. This should include both verbal and digital forms of bullying. If there are no protocols it makes it difficult for students to report any incidents and depending on the severity of the bullying it can make it more difficult for students to get these forms of bullying reported to local law enforcement. She also offered those in attendance an online resource that her agency provides.

Dr. Walter Bramme with the Grand Rapids Urban League followed MS. Woods. Dr. Bramme addressed the issue of bullying from the perspective of race. Bramme began by speaking about the social construction of race and racism. Bramme cites Michele Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow as a reality for people of color since so many people of color are in the prison industrial complex. There are more people of color in the criminal justice system than there were enslaved people in 1860, according to Bramme. The Urban League director ended by saying that bullying is manifested towards Black youth because of the socio-economic dynamics that Black youth live under.

The next speaker was Larry Johnson, Security Manager for the Grand Rapids Public Schools. Johnson said that even if policy or legislation is mandated, resources need to be allocated in order for he policies to be enforced. Johnson makes the point that there are those that are bullied, those that do the bullying and those who are bystanders. He also says that there are schools that allow bullying to take place. Schools are a microcosm of the community, said Johnson, so if bullying is happening in the community, it is happening in the schools. “Therefore it must be a communitywide effort to address this problem.” He also mentions that besides students who bully, there are teachers and coaches who also engage in bullying.

Denise Brogan Kator with Equality Michigan followed Mr. Johnson. Denise made the point that LGBT students are bullied at a significantly higher rate than non-LGBT students in the state. The number one reason that students are bullied in schools is the real or perceived sexual orientation of students. She says that another important issue was how we model negative behavior in how we engage each other, both in our public discourse and on blogs. We need to encourage respectful dialogue around whatever issue that is being discussed. Michigan is only one of five states in the country that do not have any legislation to protect against bullying, according to Kator. She also said that there are those that oppose it because of the specific language about who are the primary targets of bullying, the LGBT community.

A Woman from the Wyoming Community Youth Coalition encouraged people to watch this short video on YouTube, which is about parents of a teenager, which committed suicide after being the victim of bullying.

After the video the Commission opened up the forum for public comment. There were several area students who are all part of the Grand Rapid Mayor’s Youth Council. The first student said that in recent polls she has seen that 2/3rds of kids have reported being bullied. She told how she herself would sometimes stay home from school to avoid bullying. She mentions that there is both verbal and physical bullying, with cyber-bullying being a part of verbal bullying. She also states that there is obvious bullying and what she refers to as secret bullying. An example of secret or subtle bullying is when we call kids names or make up things about kids, which is common on social media.

Another student, Colandra Jones who is a Senior at City High, spoke about examples of bullying at the high school. She also spoke about intervening that was effective and how that it is important for students, particularly older students who can set an example for younger students. She told those present that the Anti-Defamation League came to her school to do a diversity training. Colandra said that it was useful, but needed to be for a longer period of time. She also talked about her own victimization of bullying and stressed the need for eliminating the socio-economic dynamics that contributes to bullying. She also stressed that adults need to take students seriously, to listen to them and support them by engaging other parents, teachers and school administrators on this matter. “Everything you do, or don’t do has an impact!

Another student on the Mayor’s Youth Council has had lots of experience with bullying, mostly because of his size or because he has been labeled a nerd. He learned to cope, but mostly he felt that people didn’t care because there was no mechanism in place to deal with it. He talked about an upcoming event called Kids Speak and the topic this year is how schools can eliminate bullying. Everyone was invited to attend the event, which will be on April 29th at City Hall in Grand Rapids.

A young Black student who is also part of the Mayor’s Youth Council spoke next. She talked about being bullied in school, which didn’t surprise her. What bothered her more was the inaction of the school despite her and her parents informing the school. She was hit in the face with a broken bottle by another student, which required her to go to the hospital. The perpetrator only got a 3-day suspension, because she verbally responded to the perpetrator. She now sees the same things happening to her younger sister.

Another student on the Mayor’s Youth Council says that he has been the victim of bullying most of his life. He said that the bullying began in kindergarten but it escalated during Middle School. He thought because of his being the target of bullying for so many years that he was the problem. He says that there is negative behavior and bullying in the Catholic Schools, even from the teachers who intimidate students.

After the last student spoke one of the Civil Rights Commissioners asks the audience about witnessing times when bystanders took action. Only a few people in the audience raised their hands.

There were also two women who spoke during the public forum. The first was a woman from Jenison who has kids in the public school system. She says that there have been numerous examples of bullying that her sons have been the target of. She has communicated with the school administration, but has not seen any concrete results. She was forced to go outside of the school system, which finally got their attention. This has been going on for years and the school district would not take action. “Why isn’t there a program, legislation to educate kids about the realities of bullying,” she asked the Commission. She spoke with a great deal of frustration about her kids not being listened to by school officials and even stated that she is considering removing her children from that school district.

The last woman to address the Commission said she has been a victim of bullying in the workplace for the passed four years. She spoke emotionally about her experience, which she has documented over 300 separate examples of being bullied at work. She pleaded with the Commission to help pass legislation in Michigan. She stated that she is currently off work and is afraid to go back for fear of continued bullying.

At the end of the forum the Civil Rights Commissioners let people know that if they or anyone else wanted to submit testimony or statements on the issue of bullying they could send them to this E-mail Millerj31@michigan.gov. People were also encourage to mail in statements to:

Michigan Department of Civil Rights

Attention: Bullying Forum Grand Rapids

Cadillac Place

3054 West Grand Boulevard, Suite 3-600

Detroit, MI 48202

 

 

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 1, 2012 6:00 pm

    A Solution to End Bullying:
    With all respect, I would rather take all this energy of expression and put it to effective, constructive use. I know an Non-Profit youth organization, that can make a difference and end bullying- Saving Lives! But, has not start-up due to politics and the control factor of programs even if their programs are not effective. Learn More about this organization at http://www.gpys.org

  2. March 1, 2012 6:06 pm

    With all due respect to you, it seems that you are just promoting yourself as a solution even while you acknowledge that whatever anti-bullying program you offer has not begun.

    The posting above was just reporting on a forum that took place in Grand Rapids a year ago where people could hear testimony from those students who are being bullied. There are numerous statewide groups working on concrete anti-bullying campaigns such as the ACLU, Equality Michigan and Michigan chapters of GLISEN.

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  1. New Hate Speech Watch blog started in Grand Rapids « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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