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American Indian Programs Target Bullying

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Back in the fall, Kathleen Atene’s 5-year-old daughter was eagerly anticipating her first day of kindergarten—she’d get to ride the big yellow bus and go to the school her older sister attended. But when Atene went to her first parent conference a few weeks into the school-year, the teacher informed her that since the beginning of the year her daughter had been bullied by a classmate on the bus and in school—the abuse included having her hair pulled and being mocked for her appearance. The revelation surprised Atene, in part because her three other children had never experienced anything similar and her youngest had never said a word. The teacher said she was aware of the problem and the bully and her daughter had been separated. “She reassured me she would follow up,” says Atene.

Atene, a public health nurse in Chinle, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation, assumed the problem had been resolved. But then she noticed that her daughter’s behavior was changing. “She used to read and play after school, but now she’d come home and go straight to sleep. She was losing weight. She was self-conscious about how she looked. Her self-esteem had plummeted. She would sleep through dinner and I would have to feed her. It was so unlike her. I asked her what was wrong, but she didn’t want to tell me.”

In January, Atene had a day off from work and was getting her daughter ready for school. “She just cried and cried and begged me not to make her go to school.” Finally, her daughter told Atene that a child was pulling her hair on the bus, intimidating her in the cafeteria, making fun of her clothes and even how she smiled. Deeply concerned, Atene sent her children to school on the bus and followed in her car, determined to talk to school authorities about the bullying.

Mose Herne (Akwesasne Mohawk), acting deputy director of the Indian Health Service’s Division of Behavioral Health, Office of Clinical and Preventive Services, says bullying is a pervasive problem—nearly a third of all students experience some form of it at school, and about 20 percent are physically bullied at some point in their lives. Bullying occurs more in middle schools (about 44 percent of schools) than in elementary or high schools (about 20 percent). And now, cyber-bullying is virulent. The Cyberbullying Research Center’s statistics from 2010 show that as many as 20 percent of all students have been the victims of cyber-bullying and about the same number have been perpetrators.

While the statistics are far from definitive, one study indicates that bullying may be more prevalent in Native American schools. Herne says, “According to a recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey, when compared to the overall youth population, Navajo high school students were significantly more likely to: (1) avoid going to school at least one day because they felt unsafe (10.9 percent versus 5.5 percent); (2) have been in a physical fight on school property one or more times (17.2 percent versus 12.4 percent); (3) carry a weapon on school property at least one day (11.2 percent versus 5.9 percent); and (4) have been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property one or more times (9.6 percent versus 7.8 percent).”

Anecdotal evidence and some small studies have indicated that bullying behavior is directly influenced by a student’s home life, and now a large study has confirmed that. A report released April 22 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention verified that kids involved in bullying are far more likely to have witnessed violence in their families or to have been the victims of intra-familial violence than students who were neither bullies nor the victims of bullying. The analysis also showed—as expected—that bullies and their victims are more likely than others to get poor grades, to use alcohol and drugs, to consider suicide or other self-hurting behaviors and to report feeling sad or hopeless. Students who were categorized in the study as being both bullies and victims of intra-familial violence were most at risk. The report was based on the Massachusetts Youth Health Survey, which studied 6,000 students in Massachusetts public middle and high schools.

So there are some indications and numbers that this is an important issue in Indian country. What we need and do not yet have, says Herne, are an agreed-upon description of what behaviors constitute bullying (basically a definition), community-based research or even best practices for school districts, superintendents and principals. However, the fact that we don’t have all the information we want, says Herne, “should not stop us from taking action.”

Across the U.S., bullying is a serious problem that worries—and oftentimes stymies—parents, teachers and others who care about kids. But a few smart, caring American Indians are quietly making a difference.

Atene did not wait for the school to save her child from bullying. She went to her child’s teacher and told her that the bullying had become a mental health issue for her daughter, and asked to see the school’s policy on bullying. The school responded that it was unable to give her a document stating that policy, which made her wonder if the policy even existed in any formal sense. When she asked how many times her child had been victimized she learned that there was no documentation of the incidents involving her child or for those of any other bullying victims at the school. Atene asked if the principal was aware of the trouble her daughter was having. When told that the principal was not on top of this situation, Atene went to her in February and asked what training her teachers had received to handle bullying. The principal said her staff had been trained and should know what to do. “Is there staffing in the cafeteria and at recess?” Atene asked. “There was last year, but not this year,” the principal said. “Were there any anti-bullying posters on the walls for the children to see?” Just small ones.

At that point, Atene realized that the school wasn’t doing enough and couldn’t do enough. “I offered my services,” she says. “I suggested that I go into my daughter’s classroom and talk about bullying. The principal said I could do that. I then asked my daughter’s teacher to invite the parents.”

On February 14, Atene gave a presentation to the children in her youngest daughter’s class and a few parents. The children listened as she explained to them what bullying was, and that it hurt other people, and that there were things they could do if they were being bullied or saw someone being bullied. The parents took home handouts to share with their families.

Atene was in good company when she decided to confront bullying head-on—it’s the approach endorsed by the federal government. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration’s Stop Bullying Now program, has received very positive reviews. The free program is available at or on DVD. The website is rich in materials for kids, teens, young adults and adults and includes information about how to launch a program at your school, as well as toll-free numbers for students who are being bullied.

One strong advocate of that program is Julie Walton, suicide prevention coordinator under the Indian Health Service’s Methamphetamine & Suicide Prevention Initiative for American Indian and Alaska Native Youth for the 1,000-member Aroostook Band of Micmacs in Presque Isle, Maine. When Walton noticed bullying among the kids she worked with, she downloaded materials from the Stop Bullying Now website and began a program for a dozen 5- to 11-year-olds. “My biggest goal was to get kids to be kind and treat each other with respect.”

Walton enlisted the help of 13-year-old Troy Melissa DeWitt on the premise that kids would listen better to a just slightly older kid than to adults. “They would take in more information and believe it,” says Walton. In addition, DeWitt could model behavior for the younger students. Walton also added some team-building activities to the program. Asked whether her program has had an effect, Walton says, “By the end of the program, kids would actually call each other out if someone’s behavior was sneaky or inappropriate. Kids were getting other kids to behave with kindness and respect.”

Walton says Stop Bullying Now is a very practical, hands-on program that teachers, after-school personnel, youth leaders and parents can easily implement. She plans to run another program in the southern part of the county as soon as she can figure out how to get around in her very rural location.

Bullying is not only an educational or a health issue; it is a matter that the U.S. Department of Justice takes very seriously. The effects of bullying on young people should not be trivialized, and it is a critical issue in Indian country. The Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services says that crimes related to bullying in Indian country include assaults, extortion, sexual offenses, shootings, murder, stabbings, threats, theft and vandalism. Herne says bullying is, “a gateway behavior. Bullies go on to commit more serious crimes—60 percent of bullies are convicted of at least one crime” later in their lives. The consequences for victims are also dire: they include low school achievement, low self-esteem, depression, drug and alcohol use, self-hurting behaviors and suicide.

A 2000 survey of Lac Vieux Desert Band kids in grades 6-12 who attended school in Watersmeet, Michigan found that 69 percent felt they did not have a caring school climate, 24 percent said they had been victims of one of more incidents of school violence in the past year, 77 percent of students in grades 9-12 said their school did not have clear rules or impose consistent consequences and one-third reported that they had hit another person. Diana Kuklinski, director of the Indian Health Service’s Division of Environmental Health Services in the Bemidji (Minnesota) Area says, “The results of the survey led the tribe and the Watersmeet Township to collaborate in achieving a common goal: reducing the violence and bullying behaviors of the students within the Watersmeet Township K-12 School and communities.”

In 2005, they created a three-year school-based pilot program, Creating Caring Communities Bully-Proofing Your School. The program has then expanded to include K-12 schools serving five other tribes—Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, Stockbridge-Munsee Community, Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, and the Forest County Potawatomi Community.

The results have been very promising. Kuklinski says, “At the end of the second year, the Watersmeet Township School achieved a statistically significant decrease in physical and psychological bullying as reported by students in grades K-8 Colorado School Climate Survey. Students reported that they experienced and observed less bullying by being hit, kicked or pushed, others saying mean things, telling stories, being threatened, or from students taking their things. We’re looking at the results from the other schools, but haven’t gotten the data analyzed enough to know the impact of the program in their schools.” They have a great deal of raw data that could be extremely helpful to other school, says Kuklinski. What they do not have are the funds to analyze the data.

Bullying programs use different principles, says Herne. Some, such as Stop Bullying Now, are primarily behavior-based, giving children and adults the strategies to recognize bullying and stop it through statements, humor, redirecting behavior, enlisting the support of others, and so on. Some, like the American Indian Life Skills Development Curriculum, a strict evidence-based program, are strength-based interventions, designed to increase children’s self-protective behavior and resilience and to reduce risk-taking. “They teach kids to build self-esteem to weather life’s challenges, to cope in a positive way,” he says.

Natalie Vega has returned to her community of origin as a mental health therapist intern at the Toiyabe Indian Health Project, where she is using the American Indian Life Skills Development Curriculum with 5- to 7-year-olds on the Bishop Paiute Reservation. She says she has changed the wording of the program a little to make it friendlier for these young children. Her goal is to give the students the skills early on. She has even thought about trying the program with Head Start and day-care children.

Vega also confronts the challenge of how formally to measure the impact of the program, but she does have her own observations and those of others who work with the children. “They’re making a bond with each other and learning to look out for each other,” she says. “They noticed one boy was isolating himself, and they found ways to bring him into the group. They’ve also learned to look out for the bullies and include them.”

Atene saw similar results in her daughter’s classroom after she made her presentation. “The kids know how serious bullying is now. My daughter talks to me about what’s happening and will report if someone is bullying her.” She is working with her daughter to help her recover from the experience, to bring back her self-esteem, to gain weight, to learn more about bullying through books, to “bring her back to where she was.”

Atene says, “It happened to be my daughter and that was heartbreaking. But it was an opportunity for me to advocate for all the kids in that situation. And a lot of kids who are bullies are asking for help, too.” Atene has given her presentation at five of the 16 schools in the Chinle Service area, and incorporates it into her work for the Indian Health Service.

Kathleen Atene, Mose Herne, Julie Walton, Troy Melissa DeWitt, Diana Kuklinski and Natalie Vega are just some of the people who have refused to let bullying in schools that serve Indian children continue to be ignored or trivialized. The resources below are available at no charge to help others take up the challenge:

Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration
The ABCs of Bullying: Addressing, Blocking, and Curbing School Aggression

Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: Bullying Among Middle School and High School Students — Massachusetts, 2009; April 22, 2011

PBS Kids: It’s My Life

Indian Health Service Director Dr. Yvette Roubideaux’s Blog: New IHS Suicide Prevention Public Service Announcement Narrated by Indian Youth

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
1-800-273-TALK (8255) It is free and confidential, 24/7