Editor's note: This is the last article in a three-part series examining the issue of bullying and its impact on students, parents and educators.
Since the state enacted anti-bullying legislation in 2007, S.C. schools have developed policies, and victims and witnesses have had people to talk to and numbers to call.
But experts say that isn't enough. For one thing, policies that might have seemed far-reaching in 2007 need to change with the times.
Technology has extended the bullying's reach, and some victims of bullying are taking more drastic steps to respond.
In September, area schools saw how vulnerable they were when a gun was brought into Socastee High School. A school resource officer was injured and several pipe bombs were found that day. Since then, a lawyer for the 14-year-old student charged in the incident has said the boy had been bullied for years. On Friday, more details of those incidents may come to light during a hearing in which a judge will hear arguments on whether the student, who has been charged as a juvenile, should face felony charges as an adult.
"Kids have been bullied for forever," said Robin Kowalski, a professor at Clemson University and a bullying expert. "But the cyberbullying side has increased."
And with cyberbullying come a whole host of new issues, Kowalski said.
In the past, bullying was something that happened during school or at school-sponsored activities. That is not the case when it moves online.
"It's occurring off of school grounds but affecting the school day," she said.
Almost half of children who report being cyberbullied do not know the identity of the person bullying them, she said, "and that's the disconcerting part, the anonymity."
The increasing prevalence of cyberbullying means parents need to be aware of what's going on, and Kowalski said that's part of the duty of the school districts.
"The schools need to have programs in place ... to educate the parents," she said. "Most parents didn't grow up with this technology."
In the end, however, the best teachers are the children themselves, Kowalski said.
"Schools and parents can really let the kids be the experts," she said. "Put the kids in the driver's seat and let them educate about the use of technology."
Ending the cycle
But children need to be involved not only with the prevention of cyberbullying, but all bullying, she said.
"It's one thing to have a teacher stand up there and lecture about bullying. It's another to have a peer leader talk about it," she said.
In Horry County, schools have changed their security policies since the Socastee shooting. The week after that incident, schools were instructed to use metal detectors every day.
The district is also seeking ways to encourage more parent and student involvement.
The Georgetown County School District is working to initiate some bullying prevention programs.
"We're talking about going out and talking to different age groups," said Kelly Kelley, risk manager for the district. "We've got some parents who want to be involved, too."
Kelley said the district is also rethinking its punishments for bullying.
She said the current punishment for bullying is expulsion, and that harsh punishment may be preventing students from reporting incidents.
The Horry County school district is working to change the way guidance counselors work with students about bullying, and "creating a sense of civic responsibility among their peers, the bystanders," said Teal Britton, the district's spokeswoman.
Bullying was cited as a factor when a Carolina Forest High School student brought a sword to school and was shot and killed by a school resource officer after a struggle over the weapon in October 2009. That student had Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, and was misunderstood and bullied by many students, according to his parents.
Britton said the district is working on ways to better report when instances of bullying occur.
"How do you begin to document things of which there isn't much documentation for," she said.
"All of us relate to images of bullying," she said; for example, an older, bigger child pushing a smaller child into a locker.
Such instances are relatively easy to deal with, she said, since they're overt and visible.
"So much of bullying is not a physical exercise, it's emotional ... so there are situations sometimes where they are difficult to document," Britton said.
And Britton said without documentation, it's difficult to prove that anything has happened.
"We have to act based on the best information we have," she said.
In both the Carolina Forest and Socastee incidents the school district said it had no reports of bullying of those students, though people close to the students said afterward that they were bullied.
Getting any information at all about bullying is sometimes difficult, Kowalski said.
"Kids don't want to go up to a teacher and tell them about bullying," she said. "There needs to be some kind of anonymous reporting system."
The Georgetown County School District has an anonymous 1-800 number students or teachers can use to report bullying. But there have been no anonymous tips from the hot line regarding bullying since it started in 2007, Kelley said.
"I do feel like it's going on," said Kelley. "But we don't get a lot of formal notices."
A total of 24 students have been recommended for expulsion due to bullying since 2007, according to the district.
Kowalski said children don't report bullying if they don't think anything will be done about it.
"Kids typically don't believe their schools are proactive enough about bullying," she said.
But that attitude is changing as bullying is tied to more incidents of school violence, locally and across the country.
The S.C. Department of Education is also working to give schools more tools to deal with bullying.
At the end of October, the S.C. Association of School Administrators put on a seminar about bullying prevention. Part of it is a partnership with the Department of Education to launch the S.C. Bullying Prevention Initiative.
The initiative will select test schools for the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, a highly researched school and community program that reduces or prevents bullying.
Molly Spearman, the association's executive director, said they are looking for eight to 10 schools to try the program, which includes a survey to find out where incidences of bullying occur. But the program costs about $4,000 to implement, so the association is working with schools to figure out funding sources.
Apart from the money, she said the entire community needs to buy in to make a bullying prevention program work.
And the stakes are only getting higher, Spearman said.
Lawsuits against districts that don't respond to bullying are becoming more and more common across the nation and there is a lawsuit pending in South Carolina.
In mid-October parents of a student of Sumter's School District 17 filed a lawsuit against the district for not responding to their claims of bullying.
The lawsuit says their son was repeatedly bullied while on the school bus and the district did not take adequate action to prevent the bullying from continuing.
The parents are seeking damages to be determined by a judge.
Spearman said schools need to protect themselves from all of the dangers associated with bullying.
"Most folks are doing a good job," she said. "But it's that one incident that doesn't get handled properly ... . These little things can build up and build up, and if it's not handed properly, it can turn into very serious and sometimes tragic incidences."
Contact GINA VASSELLI at 443-2434.