OAKHURST -- The controversy over how a teacher and school officials dealt with an 8-year-old accused bully at Oakhurst Elementary School has cast a spotlight on a national problem.
Second-grade teacher Elaine Brown said she was forced to suspend the boy after school officials failed to act on repeated complaints. Among the allegations, said Brown: The boy told a classmate he was "going to bring a gun to school and shoot him."
District officials don't deny that bullying problems have occurred recently at the 334-student school. But they said Brown violated the boy's right to privacy by talking to other parents about the allegations. She was placed on paid administrative leave on Nov. 29.
Many in this small mountain community 45 miles north of Fresno have rallied to the teacher's defense. Nearly 100 people packed a special school board meeting Jan. 6 to talk about bullying and defend Brown.
The controversy has raised questions about how schools deal with bullies, especially when the accused is so young.Bullying
Heath Wood, a clinical psychologist with Soul Shoppe Inc., demonstrates feelings encountered when dealing with bullies during a presentation.Bullying
Teacher Elaine Brown, who was placed on administrative leave from Oakhurst Elementary School, bides her time at home, waiting for the outcome of a hearing. Among the charges against her was her refusal to take an 8-year-old suspended for bullying back into her second-grade classroom for the safety of the other children.Bullying
A sixth-grader offers emotional support to a friend during an emotionally powerful meeting about bullying experiences, held Thursday afternoon in a Wasuma Elementary School classroom.Bullying
Heath Wood, a clinical psychologist with Soul Shoppe Inc., talks to second-grade students at Wasuma Elementary School in Ahwahnee. Wood gave a presentation about bullying Thursday. An incident at Oakhurst Elementary has raised questions about how schools deal with bullies, especially when the accused is so young.Bullying
Second-grade students raise their hands during a presentation about bullying at Wasuma Elementary School.
The link between a victim and a bully
All threats need to be taken seriously, no matter the age, said Peter Sheras, professor of clinical and school psychology at the University of Virginia. Author of the book "Your Child: Bully or Victim?" he is associate director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project.
"Have 8-year-olds brought guns to school? Yes," Sheras said.
Sheras says almost every child has the potential to become a bully or victim. Often, they are one and the same, as victims sometimes turn to bullying.
"A child who bullies, bullies for a reason," he said. "There is no such thing as a born bully -- they learn this somewhere."
In Oakhurst, many think school officials could have avoided the current controversy with earlier action.
The father of the accused bully said his son's conduct has been misunderstood and that the boy -- himself a victim of bullying -- has been unfairly demonized.
Jeremy Mason said the family was blindsided by accusations that he said have been blown out of proportion. For example, one claim is that his son tried to choke another student; in reality, he simply pulled on the collar of a boy who had been taunting him, Mason said.
The reported gun threat referred to an Airsoft gun his son mentioned bringing for show-and-tell. Mason said his son was planning to buy the gun with $100 his mother promised him if he stayed out of trouble in school for two weeks. Similar to BB guns, Airsoft guns use lightweight plastic projectiles propelled by compressed gas or a spring-driven piston.
Mason said his son has been made out to be a monster, and he now fears for the boy's safety, because it seems as if the whole community has turned against him.
"I'm not saying he is completely innocent," Mason said. "But if he was such a problem, why didn't they address it earlier?"
Parents and experts suggest that bullying complaints need to be taken seriously and tackled early on before they get out of hand.
"You have to stop the behavior so it doesn't become part of their character," said Larry Powell, Fresno County schools superintendent. "When you spot something that is inappropriate behavior, you have to act immediately."
Measures being sought
Bullying is a significant problem in the nation's schools. About one in four students report they've been bullied, in many cases frequently, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The U.S. Department of Justice describes bullying as "aggressive behavior that is intentional (not accidental or done in fun) and that involves an imbalance of power or strength." It can take many forms including "hitting or punching, teasing or name-calling, intimidation through gestures and social exclusion."