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For many, ‘mean girl’ practice starts early

Bullying on rise in lower grades

By Bella English
Globe Staff / March 9, 2010

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The girl came home from school upset. A classmate had called her names. Told her everyone hated her. Said she couldn’t sit with the others at lunch. The other girls all went along with it.

Such “mean girl’’ behavior is not new. Girl-on-girl cruelty has long been the subject of books, TV shows, and movies about tween and teen girls.

But this girl was 7 years old.

“I have to tell you: I am floored that it starts this early,’’ says the girl’s mother, who asked for anonymity to protect her daughter. “Usually it’s middle school, when boys come into the picture and there’s jealousy and competition.’’

Bullying, at least among girls, starts at a young age; whether this is new is a subject of debate among behavioral specialists.

Some believe that the popularity of shows such as “Gossip Girl’’ and the talk radio shout-fests that kids listen to from the back seat of the car have fanned the flames, which are spread face-to-face and through cyberspace.

“I think what’s different is how uninhibited it [bullying] has become. There’s just a real lack of empathy,’’ said Deborah Weaver, executive director of a self-defense and safety program for Boston girls, who has worked with more than 6,000 girls between 8 and 18.

A spotlight has been focused on bullying among girls since 14-year-old Phoebe Prince in South Hadley killed herself in January after incessant taunting by female classmates. The death follows a number of suicides nationwide that have been linked to bullying, and has educators and parents scrambling once again for answers.

Schools and child development experts are beginning to acknowledge that bullying begins at the earliest ages, and they are taking steps to combat it by promoting kindness and leadership skills.

They worry that the kind of taunting often observed among the youngest children - criticizing each other’s clothing, saying things like “I’m not your friend anymore’’ - can lead to full-fledged bullying by adolescence.

“I think they’re recognizing it, they’re tuned in a little bit more,’’ says Barbara Coloroso, a nationally known expert who wrote “The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander’’ and other books on parenting and conflict resolution.

But even as the state Legislature considers a bill this month to require antibullying programs in every grade in every school across Massachusetts, some say there is reluctance to accept that children picking on each other amounts to bullying.

“We still have this problem that we only get serious about it when it’s physical,’’ Coloroso says. “The old ‘sticks and stones’ adage is a lie, an absolute lie.’’

Though research on cruelty among girls is relatively new, it is clear that the use of friendship as a weapon begins as early as preschool, says Rachel Simmons, author of “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls.’’

“By some accounts it happens preverbally in girls,’’ she says. “They close their eyes and put their hands over their ears when they’re upset with you. That’s their version of withdrawing from you.’’

Deba Palma, director of admissions and financial aid at Thacher Montessori School in Milton, has seen bullying in preschoolers.

“We see children younger than 5 years old who can have sort of an attitude toward other little girls,’’ she says. By spring of kindergarten year, children become more verbal.

“When their brain starts changing and they get a lot more verbal, it festers more,’’ Palma says. “You start hearing things like, ‘I’m not going to be your best friend,’ and ‘You can’t come to my birthday party.’ ’’

The family of the 7-year-old girl who was shunned at school had moved last fall from one South Shore town to another. The bullying started soon after: “Only babies wear tights. You’re a big baby.’’ “We hate you here. Go back to your old town.’’ If anyone played with the new girl, the leader would say: “Why are you with her? We hate her.’’ The girl wasn’t allowed to eat at the girls’ table; she ate with the boys.

The parents felt the teacher was unresponsive to their complaints, so they went to the school counselor. As a result, the school will implement a bullying prevention program.

Such programs would be required in every grade across Massachusetts under the antibullying bill in the Legislature.

“This is aimed at those schools that are not doing what they need to do to keep students safe,’’ says Representative Marty Walz, a Boston Democrat who is the House chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Education.

Under the bill, every adult in a school must report any bullying incident to the principal, who is then required to investigate and take disciplinary action. In addition, the principal must inform parents of the bully and the bullied and offer a curriculum for parents on bullying.

“Parents are very much a part of the solution,’’ Walz says. If the behavior is criminal in nature, law enforcement must be brought in.

But critics say the bill does not go far enough because it doesn’t criminalize bullying, nor can schools be held liable if they fail to protect children.

“It’s a real toothless tiger,’’ says victims’ rights lawyer Wendy Murphy, who teaches at New England School of Law.

“The schools must investigate, but they only have to report when and if they determine that it constitutes bullying. It’s an honor system in an institutional environment where the primary goal is to cover up all the bad stuff.’’

And if the schools fail to provide the bullying education, she adds, there’s no sanction.

Experts agree that teacher and parental role modeling and intervention are crucial, especially at early ages.

“When we’re talking about 3-, 4-, 5-year-old girls, your ability is stronger as a parent to police your child’s behavior than when your girl is 15,’’ says Simmons, founder of the Girls Leadership Institute, a nonprofit that teaches assertiveness skills.

Still, many parents don’t take the issue seriously at such an early age.

Research shows that mothers will respond forcefully if their young daughters bite or hit someone, Simmons says. But verbal bullying is different.

“Very often, moms say, ‘That’s just girls being girls.’ But if you make light of it and don’t intervene, you’re giving your daughter permission,’’ she says.

Coloroso says it’s imperative to acknowledge bullying regardless of age because the behavior often progresses.

She described a case last year in Washington state in which a group of sixth-grade girls made an animated video set to a Hannah Montana tune and put it on YouTube. Titled “Top Six Ways to Kill Piper,’’ the video showed two girls shooting their classmate, shoving her off a cliff, poisoning her, and making her kill herself. The perpetrators, 11 and 12 years old, were disciplined by their school, but no criminal charges were filed.

“If we don’t handle it in grade school,’’ Coloroso says, “it only gets worse.’’

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