On the heels of a Bully, a hitting theaters, teen bullying has received increased national scrutiny.
The issue had already hit home for 10-year-old student Zach Greenshields, who this year reported receiving violent threats on the playground of his school. Seventeen-year-old Katy Butler of Plymouth, hailed by the Washington Post as "a new voice against bullying" after starting a campaign to make Bully accessible for students younger than 17 by lobbying to make the film PG-13, recounted on the Daily Beast the bullying she endured while a student at for being openly gay.
While Plymouth-Canton Community Schools has pushed back against the epidemic, Frank Ruggirello Jr., the district's director of community relations, said the effort needs to begin at home.
Patch blogger Jerry Grady shares Ruggirello's sentiments.
"Today’s social media has created an area of bullying that no one is properly trained on how to deal with," Grady wrote in a blog post detailing his family's experiences with bullying. "Facebook, Twitter, SmartPhones, Angry Birds, chat rooms, they are filled with people bullying on a daily basis and unfortunately it is never known because parents don’t always take an active role in reviewing their kids' technology."
Ruggirello said most instances of bullying in the Plymouth-Canton district are rooted in interactions on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, and that the district has been offering programs to prevent cyber-bullying.
The programs aren't geared solely toward students, however.
"Parents play a huge role in this," Ruggirello said. "If you talk to any administrators at the high school, they will tell you 90 percent of problems have some kind of connection to social media."
Ruggirello said the district has coordinated efforts with both Canton Police and the Canton Library to educate students on the effects of bullying online. It also has offered programs for parents to be aware of their children's online interactions.
Grady wrote that many parents are never aware of cyber-bullying because many students won't report it.
"Kids are smart," Grady wrote. "They figure out how to hide it, how to delete those text messages, and most importantly how to manipulate us parents."
Ruggirello also said students' knowledge of technology allows them to hide signs of bullying from their parents.
"Kids are more technilogically savvy," Ruggirello said. "Parents need to watch for what their children are doing."
Acceptance is part of district's efforts
Ruggirello said the district has made it an effort to teach students to be respectful of those who might be different.
"Even in my 10 years (with the district), there population has changed a lot," Ruggirello said. "There are different cultures and different backgrounds. We try to work with kids to understand and respect each other's differences."
One such effort is the Gay-Straight Alliance at Plymouth-Canton Educational Park, led by teacher Larry Price, which Ruggirello said focuses on preventing the abuse of students who are gay.
Butler, now a junior at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, recalls being bullied as a student at .
"When I was in middle school, I was out as a lesbian and a lot of people, unfortunately, in the school were not OK with that," she said. "They called me names and pushed me into the wall, pushed me into my locker. One time they ended up breaking my finger."
Butler worked with state legislators on anti-bullying legislation in 2011, where she lobbied against language in the bill that she said made bullying acceptable if one showed a moral or religious justification, and now is working with lawmakers in Washington on a national bullying bill.
Ruggirello said with the extra publicity surrounding the release of the film, more attention will be drawn to the bullying in schools, and the district will continue its efforts to work with students and parents on prevention and intervention.
"We're always looking for ways to do better," he said.
District was early innovator with anti-bullying efforts
Ruggirello said Plymouth-Canton Community Schools was among the first districts in the state to offer an anti-bullying policy when former director of student services Bob Hayes implemented one in the 2005-06 school year.
But, Ruggirello said, "that's only worth the paper it's written on if it's not in the classroom."
He said teachers frequently work with students at all grade levels to prevent bullying, and peer mediation has taught students to work through conflicts without physical or verbal attacks.
Efforts also have been implemented at the elementary level, Ruggirello said, through an anti-bullying task force and positive behavior programs.
Troy Reehl, principal of , said in an email his school has placed great emphasis on bullying.
"We started in the fall making this a No. 1 priority in our school," Reehl wrote. "My staff and I feel that if a student can’t come to school feeling safe, then they can't focus on learning."
Parents can take more active role in students' lives
Ruggirello said students who are bullied should immediately tell their parents if they are uncomfortable talking to school administrators or faculty, and those parents should contact the school.
"We will try to work on it together," Ruggirello said.
As a parent and former bullying victim, Grady wrote that he recognizes the urgency of recognizing and reporting instances of bullying.
"It is a destructive behavior which sets a child’s long-term emotion and physical plan in play," Grady wrote. "It has everlasting effects on the victim and can take years of therapy to unwind."
While some parents might express frustration that there is no quick fix to the bullying problem, Ruggirello said parents taking on a more active role at home can help with identifying and reporting problems.
The bottom line, Ruggirello said, is that bullying is everyone's problem, and Plymouth-Canton Community Schools isn't backing off its obligation to keep students safe.
"It's important for every parent to ask their kids how things are going," he said. "Be an active participant. We'll do our part from our end."