October 18, 2010
By Patrick H. Donges
The Saratogian

SARATOGA SPRINGS — A girl walks into a classroom without her shoes after another student demands she either give them up or face the ridicule of her peers.

How should parents address this incident with their children if they are involved? How can parents and students address bullying with school officials? How can parents and students effectively help those who are the target of bullying?

In the wake of several tragic incidents involving schoolyard and cyber bullies who tormented their victims to the point of suicide, local officials, parents and students are asking themselves how they can help prevent bullying and address it when it occurs.

“What can we do to help people prepare?” asked Mike Piccirillo, Saratoga Springs City School District’s assistant superintendent for secondary education, at the third and latest installment of the Parent University series on bullying, held Sunday afternoon at the Saratoga Springs Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church.

Launched last year through collaboration between the school district and the Saratoga Partnership for Prevention, Parent University offers free programming for parents dealing with a range of issues, from bullying to technology, child development and physical and emotional wellness.

Maureen Cary, coordinator for Saratoga Partnership for Prevention, explained to attendees that while bullying is not an area specifically addressed by drug and alcohol prevention organizations, students who are victims of bullying will often turn to substances as a coping mechanism.

“They’re looking for ways to relieve the stress and anxiety,” she said, addressing about 40 students and their parents.

Representatives from other organizations, including the Franklin Community Center, Four Winds Saratoga and Mediation Matters, were also on hand to help facilitate Sunday’s conversation.

Students were divided into three groups according to grade — kindergarteners through fifth-graders, sixth- through eighth-graders and high school students — while their parents also formed groups to discuss solutions to bullying scenarios.

“If I’m nobody, and nobody’s perfect, then I must be perfect,” said sixth-grader Lia Chabot, giving an example of a comeback that could be used to keep a bully at bay.

“I wouldn’t just want to talk to the principals,” said sixth-grader Hannah Lefevre, when asked who students should talk to at school if they see or experience bullying.

When parents were asked if they had been bullied, the majority of those who answered “yes” had been victims in the sixth grade.

“Middle school is the worst,” Saratoga Springs High School junior Renee Martin said after facilitating the conversation among sixth- through eighth-graders.

As a student liaison for Parent University, a participant in both the National Coalition Building Institute and Student Court at Saratoga Springs High School and a victim of past bullying, Martin said officials should examine opportunities for younger students to mediate and confront incidents of bullying among themselves.

“We’re always reviewing our policies,” Piccirillo said, noting events like Parent University programs were a chance to educate as well as receive important feedback from parents and students.

Along with traditional physical or emotional bullying, cyber bullying was also discussed as a growing problem, with almost all of the students from kindergarten to fifth grade saying they had witnessed or been a victim of a cyber bully.

“It’s very difficult to monitor,” Piccirillo said of taunts sent by cell phones or other devices.

One group of parents cited the importance for students to have someone, be it a teacher or administrator, to advocate for them at school.

“The one week when I wasn’t there he wanted to quit baseball,” said Samantha Giknis of her 9-year-old son Phillip’s experience with bullying on his Little League team.

Giknis suggested that parents of bullied children get to know the parents of those doing the bullying as a first step toward addressing their behavior.

“Stand up for yourself,” said Isabella Mastrion, a fifth-grade student, when asked what students should do if they are a victim of bullying. Isabella and her sister both take Tae Kwon Do, training which their father, Guy Mastrion, said not only makes them safer, but also helps them build the confidence to confront and prevent bullying.

“These experiences are things that are passing through their lives,” he said, noting that incidents of bullying or unfair treatment usually do not end after high school.

The next program in this series on bullying will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4 at the Saratoga Springs Public Library.

Organizations with venues that would like to host a Parent University program can call 583-4714 or e-mail m_piccirillo@saratogaschools.org for more information.