S.F. forum urges zero tolerance for school bullies

Much of the violence children have had to deal with in school can be summed up in one word: bullies.

At least that was the consensus at a recent community forum on school violence that drew a small group of parents and San Francisco Police Department school liaison officers to the Jewish Community High School of the Bay. The San Francisco school co-sponsored the event with Congregation Emanu-El and the Jewish Community Relations Council.

“A lot of people I talk to at synagogue have discussed problems they’ve had with bullying,” said Herbert Weiner, a member of Emanu-El who organized the event, hoping to raise awareness about school violence. “Some are very outraged about it. Some see it going on all around them and don’t know what to do.”

Bullying was a factor in several school shootings, said some of the speakers. Usually the shooter was the victim of bullying, but on some occasions he was both a victim and a bully.

Despite public perceptions to the contrary, school shooters are not all depressed loners, according to speaker Bryan Vossekuil, a former Secret Service agent who now works as director of the National Threat Assessment Center. Using the National Threat Assessment Center’s report on the most extreme cases of school violence — targeted shootings in schools, such as the Columbine tragedy — Vossekuil said shooters cross demographic and economic boundaries. Some are isolated and perform poorly academically, while others are sociable, involved in extracurricular activities and have good academic records.

Lois Perillo, an SFPD school resource officer, pointed out that bullying is a pervasive problem in San Francisco schools.

“It ranges from teasing to physical violence,” said Perillo, adding that the SFPD and its school liaison officers take the bullying problem seriously.

School resource officers — police officers assigned to work in specific schools as peacemakers and mediators, also frequently find kids bringing edged weapons and replica guns into schools.

Bay Area schools have a range of responses to the bullying problem — and don’t always respond helpfully, said Jackie Berman, educational specialist for the JCRC. She said parents frequently call her about their kids being bullied in public schools and secular private schools, though she has never received a call about a problem from a Jewish day school.

“Depending on the situation, I either advise them or I directly intervene,” said Berman. “In some schools they just totally overlook the bullying problem. They pretend like it’s not happening: Kids will be kids. At other schools, they’re very clear about what’s acceptable and what isn’t.”

If the bullying or violence has an anti-Semitic overtone, the JCRC is particularly bound to respond.

“Several years ago we had a girl who had swastikas etched on her locker and on her desk,” recalled Berman. “This was clearly anti-Semitic and the school was very reluctant to notice. The teachers said, ‘Well, cover your desk, don’t look at it.’ I called the school and told them to paint over those swastikas.”

Berman said every school should develop, with its students, a code of behavior that all are expected to follow.

Both Perillo and Vossekuil mentioned that kids who may have information about a potentially violent peer are often afraid to come forward. Sometimes this is a result of the severe punishments meted out by schools trying to avert violence.

“One common thread is the ‘code of silence,'” said Perillo. “They don’t want to be labeled as a snitch.”

“We need to talk about zero barriers for kids coming forward with information,” said Vossekuil.

What united the audience Oct. 23 was a strong desire to see bullying taken more seriously by all schools.

Weiner said that just as society no longer accepts domestic abuse as inevitable or acceptable, so should bullying be treated as a serious social problem. Himself a victim of bullying in both his Jewish Sunday school and public schools, Weiner said he believes bullying can scar its victims for life.

“We don’t accept domestic violence as a fact of life,” said Weiner. “We shouldn’t accept bullying either. We need to build a democratic culture in schools that can spill over to the adult world.”