That's the message Jim Bisenius hammered home to hundreds of elementary students sitting on a Lakota school's gym floor in rare, rapt attention.
Almost every young hand – boys and girls alike – had gone up when the anti-bullying expert asked who among them had been bullied.
Nearly one in three students across America reported being bullied in 2013, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, and nearly 15 percent of high school students were bullied online in 2014, say officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A Kentucky Department of Education study released this month found one in four students ages 12 to 18 reported being bullied. In 2013, the study notes, one reported bullying incident occurred every four minutes of every school day.
The problem remains steadfastly widespread, so much so that October is designated nationwide as "Bullying Prevention Awareness Month."
And the problem is worsening, says University of Cincinnati Professor Keith King, director of the Center for Preventive Science in the College of Education, thanks to a rash of social media to smear and attack their victims.
"Parents and schools are really struggling and with social media, we are still in untested waters" in combating electronic bullying among youths, said King.
Despite years of aggressive efforts by local schools, such as bringing in nationally recognized anti-bullying experts like Bisenius, the verbal and physical abuse inflicted on school children continues and has morphed and expanded through new social media sites.
Bullying, by its nature, is hard to measure but everyone agrees they know it when they see it.
Unfortunately, it often goes unseen by adult eyes because while the bullies can be verbally or physically abusive, they're not necessarily stupid when it comes to avoiding the adults who might catch them in the act.
Josh White broke down and cried recently when his seventh grade son came home in tears from his Boone County school.
White said some of his son's classmates had tried to ambush the 12-year-old and were going to film his beating with cellphones, presumably to post online.
"There's always been bullying but it's different now," said White. "There is a whole new level of violence."
His son is fearful now about going to school and recently, said his father, tormentors spit on his boy's head on the school bus. He is frustrated with school officials who explained they need more proof and are slow, in White's opinion, to make busing and classroom changes to separate his son from his abusers.
White recently started a student bullying discussion on The Enquirer's Boone County Neighborhood Group Facebook page and was surprised by the rapid response from dozens of area parents complaining about bullying in various school systems.
"There are a lot of kids and parents out there going through the same thing," he said.
Behavior varies, reasons for it don't
A child behavior specialist of two decades, Bisenius has met with hundreds of parents and children during his 15 years as an anti-bullying expert, conducting more than 120 student assemblies throughout the Midwest including one last week in Butler County's Lakota Schools.
His approach differs with the ages of the students, but he intermixes plenty of practical advice on the best ways for potential victims to react. Bisenius also uses role playing with teachers to demonstrate typical school bullying situations. He tosses in tough talk, urging kids – and parents – to be vigilant and aggressive in reporting bullies to school officials, but doing so in ways that don't result in the victims putting a larger target on themselves.
"One of the main things I'm seeing in recent years is the tools (social media) to get at other kids has changed pretty drastically, but the basic idea of bullying is still the same," said Bisenius. "It's always been a power imbalance between kids – where one kid might have more social (peer group) power or more physical power and they pull fear from the kid they target in order to scare their (the bully's) peers into doing what they tell them to do."
Prior to social media, school bullies were limited to physical proximity in their abuse but now, he explains, "they can reach them 24/7 now … through Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Snap Chat and Yik Yak and are using those to do the same thing."
On Wednesday, officials at Mason Intermediate School in Warren County notified parents that some students were using Instagram messages and "spreading gossip, rumors, and negative comments. The Mason Intermediate administration is aware of this concern and we are actively working to give our kids strategies to deal with negative information on Instagram," wrote Principal Greg Sears.
Sears added that school officials talked to fifth and sixth graders during their lunch time on Wednesday and told them "to not engage anyone they don't know personally, block users from your account, delete users and not contribute to negative posts."
Bisenius said bullies "are pulling fear or reaction from the person they are picking on," he said. "And they are using that fear to scare their peers into pretending to be their friends or doing whatever they tell them. (Bullies) get almost addicted to that power over their peers."
He tells parents not to act rashly and cautions against jumping in by confronting a bullying student's parents.
"Remember, if you call the parent, you are also calling a bully – or they have no control over their child bully," he said.
Lakota parent Amy Carrico was among the parents from Van Gordon Elementary who attended the adult variation of Bisenius' presentation in the evening.
"There wasn't any program like this when I was in school. It's nice to have this progress for these younger children to learn about bullying and what it means and the effects it will have on their daily lives," said the Liberty Township resident.
Bisenius said parents shouldn't fool themselves into thinking bullying can ever be eliminated. It's part of the human condition, he said, and while there are strategies and resources available in schools and online, such abuse will always be with us.
"We're going to be 90 years old and there will be bullies waiting for us in the nursing home."■
Kentucky study leads to task force on K-12 bullying
Statistics abound on the prevalence of bullying in schools but comparisons of total numbers of bullying-related incidents between states is problematic because of the varying definitions states use to describe "bullying" acts by students.
Regardless, Kentucky officials this month released data from the 2011 school year that showed that one in four Kentucky students aged 12 to 18 reported being bullied at school.
Ohio Department of Education officials have compiled no similar statewide reports.
In response to Kentucky's new report, Gov. Steve Beshear announced the creation of the Kentucky Youth Bullying Prevention Task Force, a 22-member panel, including students, that will study bullying in schools and recommend practices and policies to help improve safety in schools.
Local, national resources for parents, students
Besides regular student programs and teacher training in recognizing and preventing bullying in schools, most area schools allow parents and students to make complaints about bullying through school district websites. Some local districts are making other changes to reduce the abuse including:
•Cincinnati Public Schools offers an annual anti-bullying institute through the Mayerson Academy that district officials say keeps awareness high and provides information on best practices. The district also monitors the effectiveness of schools' implementation of a Positive School Culture model, which includes trend data on bullying prevention.
•Hamilton Schools in Butler County have created a new tip line this school year, a 24/7 bully/safety hotline that "allows immediate contact with appropriate school personnel if a problem is reported."
•Warren County's Kings Schools has a confidential hotline students and parents can call to report bullying, threats of violence and suicide concerns. Emails of the complaints registered on the district's website go immediately to the Kings superintendent, building principal and district business manager.
•Monroe Schools also has a bullying hotline and this year officials are designing improvements in it and other student and staff programs. The Butler County district is also conducting a program called "Respect Everyone Despite Odds" for its students.
There are many national sources online to aid parents whose children are being bullied:
•Federal government website: http://www.stopbullying.gov/
•National Bullying Prevention Center: www.pacer.org
• American Psychological Association: www.actagainstviolence.apa.org