Almost everyone has faced some type of bully from the classic lunch thief to the self-elected dictator of the hallway. These bullies still ply their trade and now have an added tool with social media, but authorities want kids to know help is there if they are having a problem.
Smith-Cotton High School Resource Officer and Pettis County Sheriff’s Sgt. John Cline said his door is always open to anyone in need.
“Bullying is a problem across the county. Smith-Cotton has bullying issues the same as anywhere else. I don’t believe they are any worse or a bigger issue here than any other high school, but it is a nationwide problem and we certainly have our issues here. We do our best to deal with it head-on and meet it when it comes up,” Cline said.
When we say someone is a bully, what does that mean? The bully has several iconic characters sprinkled throughout literature — Lucy in the Peanuts comic, Curly in “Of Mice and Men” and even Draco Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” series. Who could forget the classic bully in Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story” and young Ralph’s vicious retribution?
The website stopbullying.gov defines a bully as, “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems.”
Cline said, “Bullying has a lot of different facets. It comes from in-person intimidation, in-person physical threats of violence and it comes from cyber harassment,” and added the latter puts a new twist on the problem as kids cannot escape the bully even after the school bell has rung.
“There was a time, if a kid was having problems or getting pushed around at school, they could leave school, go home, and have a rest from the bullying,” Cline said. “Well, we are in a different age today. We have cell phones, text messaging and social media. So kids can never really, truly get away from the bullying.
“With the social media, kids will really use that to psychologically destroy people.”
What is the motivation behind one child’s intent to belittle or hurt another? It’s not an easy question to answer and there are almost as many theories as there are bullies. Cline said it can often be traced back to the home and family dynamic.
“There are a lot of reasons, even sheer meanness. The root causes of this really come down to kids who have not been raised with a set of values that prevents them from acting out in this way. Kids, and people in general, will do that which comes naturally, which sometimes means that we do really nasty self-serving things,” Cline said.
As schools are a microcosm of the larger community, are the same problems present on the streets such as gangs and racism lurking in the hallways of Smith-Cotton?
Cline said outward incidents of racism are rare and when present, it often falls back to the home dynamic and set of values taught by parents. He said if there are gangs in the hallways, they are not “throwing up gang signs.”
“Again, schools are a reflection of the community. I can’t tell you ‘no we don’t have any gang members here.’ What I can tell you is they have figured out that we stay on top of things here pretty tight. They have learned if they come to school and commit a crime they will be held accountable, because there is a lot more supervision. It’s a lot easier to commit a crime in the dark of night as opposed to a building that has over 120 cameras,” Cline said.
Committing an assault on school property can also be a felony, even if it is only a minor “scrap.” Cline added that not every “schoolyard fight” is treated the same way, because kids are kids and “immature in a lot of ways.”
“If you commit an assault while on school property that results in any physical injury to another it is automatically a class D felony. With other types of assault (not on school property) it has to cause serious physical injury. On school property they took out the word serious,” Cline said.
“Now we look at this on a case by case. As a member of law enforcement I look at this and ask ‘Is there criminal intent here, or would this be better handled as a school disciplinary matter?’ Not every time that someone throws a swing or gets into it, is it appropriate to make an arrest. I’ve seen guys duke it out, you pull them apart, you find out it’s over a girl, and 10 minutes later they are shaking hands.”
Cline said he wants the kids to know he is there to keep everybody safe and if a student does not want to talk to him, to go to a teacher, an administrator or a counselor if they are being bullied.
“I have an open door policy. I will bend over backwards to help you. That’s why I’m here and what I do,” Cline said. “I can’t always promise everything will stay in those four walls, because sometimes the law says I have to tell other people but it’s always for your own good. Sometimes kids don’t want to talk to me because of a previous encounter with law enforcement and I understand that, but they can talk to any staff.”
Of course, many students want to take matters into their own hands, but Cline advised against that, saying it will continue to escalate the matter and usually ends badly for the aggressor and the victim.
“When you are the victim of a crime, it needs to be reported, because there are actions that we can take to deal with that crime, to punish the offender and keep the victim safe,” Cline said. “Often things start in the streets and end up here. I always advise students and parents they have other remedies through the courts, such as orders of protection. There are multiple prongs you can take, but you have to be willing to take the steps instead of handling it on your own.”