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Meaner bullying is stirring new tactics

March 07, 2008|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Gizelle Studevent was a 13-year-old eighth-grader at prestigious La Jolla Country Day School when the harassment began. She returned from a basketball tournament to find an unsigned note in her suitcase: Addressed to "Senorita," it mocked the girl's skills on the court and suggested she go home to Mexico.

Over more than two years, an anonymous band of bullies tormented Gizelle. Their acts grew increasingly cruel -- on the Internet, in notes and around school. Finally, she transferred.

"I would go home and cry every day," said Gizelle, now a junior at private Bishops School in La Jolla. "It was horrible. The scary thing for me was, what was next? What was going to happen?"

The 17-year-old is among a growing number of students who are reporting that they are victims of bullying, according to educators and experts. And bullying -- once largely restricted to stolen lunch money or hallway shoving that was taken somewhat lightly -- has grown increasingly serious, officials, parents and students say.

Today, parents are filing lawsuits against students and schools for failing to protect their children, administrators are taking stronger disciplinary action against perpetrators and a virtual industry of anti-bullying programs has sprung up. Educators, who coined the phrase "cyber-bullying" for online attacks, have increased teacher training and say they are on the lookout for symptoms of victimization or bullying behavior.

In 2005, 28% of students age 12 to 18 reported being bullied in the previous six months -- double the figure from four years earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The true figure is almost certainly higher; experts believe underreporting is rampant.

The consequences can be devastating and even deadly, as in the slaying of 15-year-old Lawrence King at an Oxnard middle school. The teenager was shot in the head Feb. 12 in a classroom after being harassed by some classmates when he disclosed that he was gay.

State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), who pushed through legislation that added new protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender, said educators must act immediately to stop the first aggressive acts. Allowing this behavior to go unchallenged creates an environment in which it is seen as acceptable, allowing it to escalate, she said.

"They need to remove people that are doing this and deal with them and not turn a blind eye," Kuehl said. "These are not just youthful high jinks; these are dangerous situations."

Administrators and teachers were once reluctant to get involved, but that attitude has changed, most urgently after two bullied Columbine High School students massacred 12 classmates and a teacher before killing themselves in 1999.

Victims of bullying are at greater risk than their peers of skipping school, dropping out, getting lower grades and taking weapons weapon to campus. The constant abuse can lead them to change their daily behavior -- they are more likely to avoid certain parts of campus, such as restrooms or the cafeteria. Some become introverted or depressed.

Bullying is "a life-changing event," said Bakersfield attorney Ralph Wegis, who often represents students in cases against school districts.

"We're all familiar with the damage that can be done by physical assault or rape, but these school bullying cases are very much akin to those kinds of damages," he said.

Wegis recently filed a lawsuit against the Kern High School District and several students on behalf of a teenager who he said was terrorized on a trip to a debate team competition. Staying in a hotel with Stockdale High School teammates, the then-14-year-old was allegedly bound with duct tape and plastic food wrap from his ankles to his shoulders. His mouth was taped shut, and his teammates took pictures and urinated on his clothing, Wegis said. The lawsuit is in the discovery phase; the district and its attorney declined to comment.

For Gizelle, the harassment took its toll. While she worked hard to keep up her grades and her skills on the basketball court, she became withdrawn and didn't easily trust people.

Her parents constantly told her that it wasn't her fault. To cheer her up, her mother, Evelyn Sullivan, would take her out for manicures, and her father, Ray Studevent, would slip $20 and a supportive note into the armrest of her car. They tried to convince her to transfer.

"I felt like she needed to move on," Studevent said. "She had been through enough."

But when Gizelle refused, the bullying grew more brazen. When she returned home from a Midwest recruiting trip during her sophomore year, she found a note taped to her locker: "Notre Dame? Bitch shut up."

The final straw -- when her name was posted on scores of pornographic websites -- forced her to transfer this fall.

"No kid should go through that," Gizelle said.

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