Walking onto the fields of Lincoln Elementary School during lunch break or recess is a vastly different experience to walking outside during lunch or brunch at MVHS. Rather than teenagers sitting around, socializing and checking their phones, there are children running, swinging from playground structures, hitting tetherballs and screaming across the wooden benches and courts.
Cupertino Union School District (CUSD) counselor Yoojin Nam points to this difference as one of the reasons that certain types of bullying and harassment seem to be less prevalent at this stage. Elementary school students don’t have the technology or social media presence to engage in cyberbullying, but still might engage in physical or verbal bullying.
“Hitting is definitely more common in elementary school, because I think if you hit someone in middle school or high school, that’s like a really big deal — you get suspended, and all that,” Nam said. “I don’t think it’s OK in elementary school either, but [it’s] generally a lot more common, from what I see.”
According to Nam, bullies in elementary school often aren’t aware of what they’re doing and the effects they’re having on the victims. At this stage, children are often unable to understand other students’ motivations or deal with problems outside of school.
“Some [bullies] are reacting to what they feel like is another person affecting or harming them, so they might act out with physical aggression,” Nam said. “Maybe it’s something that they’re struggling with at home that’s presenting itself in that sort of bullying behavior towards other kids.”
Nam also points out that, unlike cyberbullying which follows the student everywhere they go, physical aggression is more easily avoidable. Despite this, students are often in a classroom setting and aren’t always able to avoid their more physically aggressive classmates — instead, they must learn to work with them.
Nam believes that much of the responsibility for both preventing bullying and helping the victims falls on the adults during the elementary school years. Teachers, parents and other adults must set the boundaries of appropriateness in terms of physical bullying, making fun of someone, teasing or excluding others from activities.
“When they’re younger, I feel like more of the responsibility is actually on the adults,” Nam said. “I’m not saying there isn’t any responsibility for kids to be able to do the right thing, but they are younger and it’s harder for them to understand and know what’s going on exactly.”
At Kennedy MS, the atmosphere is different. Students are in the years of transition, learning to become young adults and leave their playground days behind. KMS guidance counselor Jessica Williams discusses how this affects the type of harassment the students face, and how they deal with it.
According to Williams, many of the cases she hears about revolve around students spreading rumors. As a counselor, she helps students learn to deal with everything from trouble with friends to teasing and harassment, although all serious cases of bullying go to the assistant principals. In fact, she says students sometimes bring up things that don’t really count as bullying.
In this new age of technology, middle school are the years in which these students begin getting phones and using social media. With this comes the problem of cyberbullying — Williams says that she has seen more than a few cases of students making fake accounts targeting their classmates. More often than not, she finds that cases of cyberbullying stem from a lack of communication.
“It’s not like face-to-face … in person you can see their reactions, but if someone says something over messaging it’s can be interpreted very differently,” Williams said.
Williams has noticed that in these cases, she often sees friends of victims come to her, which helps her with her job.
“I think for cyber bullying cases, we get a lot more friends coming in and reporting that their friends are getting harassed online, and that’s good because then you know that the victim has friends, and we can be like ‘Hey, the best thing you can do is be there for your friend and support them,’” Williams said.
In honor of National Bullying Prevention month this October, Williams and her colleague plan to teach lessons about bullying — how to recognize it and what to do about it — to the sixth graders. They show videos and propose mock situations so that students will be better prepared to deal with harassment on their own.
“We try not to get the parents involved, unless it’s really serious. And I’ll ask the student — because it’s completely anonymous — and if they’re OK with [me contacting the parent] then we’ll talk about it, but [...] they’re starting to learn how to remedy these situations more independently,” Williams said.
Assistant principal Michael Martinez remembers his school years in stark contrast to what he sees at MVHS. As a kid, he remembers being bullied — this meant getting punched and pushed around by bigger, buffer students. Now he sees a different type of harassment, a type he believes might have an even greater impact than physical violence.
Martinez has dealt with numerous cases of bullying, specifically cyberbullying, in the years he has been working at high schools. He points to the new era of social media and the unprecedented rise in innovation since his school days as the reason for the simultaneous rise in this new type of harassment.
With physical bullying, victims are able to get a rest at home by putting that physical distance between them and the bully, Martinez says. But with social bullying, which often manifests in cyberbullying, there is no escape.
Martinez believes that students in high school often find ways to deal with smaller cases on their own, whether it be through confronting the bully, using resources like the student advocate or telling a trusted adult if the harassment continues. Yet, he gets multiple cases of serious harassment every year, where law enforcement has to get involved.
“You hear schools previously saying, ‘Well if it didn’t happen on school grounds, on school campuses, if it didn’t happen between the hours of such and such, then it’s not really a school problem,’” Martinez said. “And I don’t agree with that. Where do you draw that line?”