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Bullying prevention needs attention and funding

Name-calling, hurtful rumors being spread in school like wildfire, physical threats via text message or social media, being told to kill yourself because you’re different — these experiences are increasingly common with today’s youth.

Bullying, also referred to as relational aggression, is unwanted, often repetitive, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. According to the American Psychological Association, relational aggression is behavior that harms another person by using the relationship, or the threat of ending the relationship, as the means of harm.

Social media is a specific challenge facing youth that is different than the experience of most adults. Social media and text messaging are an unfortunate game changer as they provide a consistent platform for threats and negativity. There is not a “break” from these types of aggression when a student leaves school.

It is undeniable that bullying is an issue facing youth. In Oregon, 30% of middle school students reported that they had been bullied at school in the past 30 days, according to the 2017 Oregon Healthy Teens Survey. And 59% of U.S. teens have been bullied or harassed online. The most recent Oregon Safe Schools Report indicated that LGBT youth were three times as likely to have stayed home from school because they were afraid for their safety at school. At the high school level, 35% of transgender and gender non-conforming youth experience bullying and 41% of sexual minority youth report identity-based bullying. Kids are being harassed for simply being who they are.

As a couples and family therapist, I frequently hear stories about bullying; families often feel stuck and out of viable options. Youths are missing vital classroom time because they are seeking resources from their school counselors and/or meeting with principals. Their educational well-being is greatly compromised in efforts to keep themselves safe. Students should not have to choose between safety and their education.

There are good options on the horizon for Oregon youth. According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, the majority of bullying incidents can be stopped by peer intervention at school. Evidence shows that with a systematic, holistic approach involving teachers, students and adults working together, bullying and relational aggression declines. Here in Oregon, we need the state Legislature to help make it happen.

State lawmakers are considering Senate Bill 180, which would designate $6 million for Oregon schools to partner with community-based organizations to provide bullying prevention and youth empowerment programs to students, their families and educators.

I’m pleased to see our Legislature has successfully passed the larger Student Success Act that provides much-needed funding to support student education and safety. However, we also need Senate Bill 180 to pass, because it specifically provides funding for bullying prevention programs that have demonstrated positive outcomes.

For the equivalent of $45 per Oregon middle school student, partnering organizations would teach bullying prevention, critical thinking, making healthy choices, and conflict resolution in small-group and classroom settings. Students and families would receive valuable tools and resources, and secondary educators would benefit from a bullying prevention and youth empowerment conference.

Ophelia’s Place, an organization that aims to empower youth and serves schools in Lane and Linn counties, has demonstrated that a systematic, holistic approach can be effective. The Ophelia’s Place model, which was delivered in middle schools, has demonstrated positive effects over a three-year period when recently evaluated by the Oregon Research Institute. Research data indicated that the Ophelia’s Place model increased student self-esteem, decreased peer victimization and increased social support among peers.

I want my niece, a middle schooler in Southern Oregon, to grow up in a school environment that delivers research-informed protocols that have demonstrated effectiveness in decreasing relational aggression and increasing self-esteem and confidence. As an Oregon resident and family therapist, I want that for all the youth across the state.

Tiffany Brown is a senior lecturer and the clinical director of the Couples and Family Therapy program at the University of Oregon.

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