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Bullying Is Not Just Schoolyard Mischief

A column by Walter Lamar about bullying among American Indians.

The Director of the Indian Health Service, Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, recently participated in the White House Forum on Bullying Prevention. She commented that bullying among Native children that began during the boarding school era continues to the present day; caring communities can put an end to the cycle. Ms. Roubideaux emphasized that bullying is not part of Native culture and is contrary to traditional values.

After the successful forum, the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) and the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) were introduced in Congress. These laws would prohibit discrimination in public schools against any student and would require school districts to adopt codes of conduct specifically prohibiting bullying and harassment. Many top officials have also recorded videos on bullying prevention for the It Gets Better Project.

While most states have anti-bullying laws already, these laws apply on tribal lands only in PL-280 states. This leaves many young people in Indian country vulnerable to bullying. The tribal government of the Menominee Reservation is considering enacting an anti-bullying law in the wake of a much-publicized bullying incident involving an 11 year-old girl; if enacted it might be a first for a tribal government.

This schoolyard behavior was once a concern only to kids and their parents but is now being discussed by all sorts of people from local police officers to Washington D.C. officials. This high-level concern comes from overwhelming evidence that the consequences of bullying are no trivial matter.

Bullying is strongly connected to poor grades, low self-esteem, depression, self-destructive or destructive behavior, substance abuse and suicide. The U.S. Department of Justice takes school-age bullying seriously because a bully often becomes a juvenile delinquent, and two out of three bullies will receive adult criminal convictions. Bullying cases in Indian Country schools have resulted in charges of assault, extortion, murder, sexual offenses, shooting, stabbing, threats, theft and vandalism. Because bullying against Native children in non-tribal schools is often racially motivated, those perpetrators can potentially be charged with a hate crime.

Bullying hurts the perpetrator as much as the victim, but the most endangered children are those who both bully others and suffer from bullying themselves, which is the case for more than one out of ten middle school students in Indian country. Research by the Center for Disease Control has shown that bullies are more likely than other students to have witnessed violence within their families, to feel sad and hopeless and even to resort to cutting and suicide. Unable to process anger, fear and other negative feelings, they vent by hurting others. While bullies and their victims are more likely than other kids to engage in self-destructive activities like drugs, alcohol abuse or suicide, the kids who are both bullied and abused are twice as likely to do so.

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The home is such a major factor in whether or not a child becomes a bully that lawmaking is less likely to deter bullies than changing that environment or giving the child a healthy outlet for coping with emotional pain. In Indian Country, where domestic violence rates are high, bullying rates are proportionally worse, as are youth suicide rates. Rather than just passing new codes and ordinances to punish bullies, communities who don't want to see children hurt each other should consider taking steps to change the environment that allows it.

Developing a more positive culture in our schools is far from an impossible task. As parents, educators and adults who work with children, we can start by identifying the kids who are endangered by their emotional pain or by physical violence. Adults should always take reports of bullying seriously and follow up appropriately. Many tribal communities have made their schools safer through acquiring readily available life skills programs and adapting them for appropriate cultural norms and ages.

The Aroostook Band of Micmacs in Presque Isle, Maine had success using the “Stop Bullying Now” program developed by the Department of Health and Human Services. In addition to program ideas, the HHS website offers basic information on how to assess the nature and scope of a bullying problem and to identify the signs of a kid in trouble.

The Lac Vieux Desert Band and the neighboring Michigan township collaborated on developing a program, called “Creating Caring Communities—Bullyproofing Your School” to reduce bullying in district schools. This program was so successful that five other Midwest tribes have since adopted it. The “American Indian Life Skills Development” curriculum, which addresses both bullying and suicide prevention, was developed on the Bishop Paiute Reservation in California and has since been adopted among the Oklahoma Cherokee and Kiowa, as well as Montana's Blackfeet Nation. SAMHSA has approved this program and placed it on the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices.

We know that education and community-based solutions are effective in bringing about lasting change. We developed training for the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) administrators and for teens in BIE schools that helps each school or community find culturally appropriate solutions for developing an inclusive and tolerant environment. If you are interested in an assessment or training for your community, your teens or your school administration, we will be happy to work with you. Bullying is far more serious than: “just kids being kids,” it can take away the joy of youth, and at worst can take a young life.

Walter Lamar, Blackfeet/Wichita, is a former FBI Special Agent, Deputy Director of BIA Law Enforcement and currently President of Lamar Associates. Lamar Associates Indian Country Training Division offers culturally appropriate training for Indian Country law enforcement and service professionals with both on-site and online courses.