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Bullies biggest threat in schools, safety expert says

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Presentation launches district-wide prevention effort

By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

TELL CITY - There are people who will go to any lengths to get access to and molest children, a school-safety specialist said Wednesday in the Tell City High School auditorium.

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That's a risk to children here, but it's not the biggest one, according to Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit school-safety center in Macon, Ga.

Americans think the risk is high that their children could fall victim to a gunman.

There is a risk, but statistics prove it's very low, Dorn said.

The No. 1 fear of kindergarten-through-12th-grade students in America and other countries "is not al-Qaida, it's not gunmen in the schools, it's bullying," he said. "That is because that is what they are seeing on a daily basis around the United States. This corporation has recognized that this is a problem in this community and in the schools, and they are tackling that issue in a very proactive, aggressive way."

First Step

Dorn's presentation kicked off an effort to combat bullying, which will next involve the training of faculty members in all three Tell City schools on the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. An anonymous donor provided $25,000 to bring Dorn and the program to Tell City.

"I want to let you see what it's like for a severely bullied child," Dorn continued, "and more importantly, I want to see that you can see the incredible power that everyone in this room has."

Everyone has the power to hurt others, even with words alone, he noted, "but we also have the power to help, the power to heal and the power to protect."

The failure to exercise the latter power leads children to believe the adults in their lives won't help them, Dorn said. He talked about a boy named Jacob, who feels safe at school, because it's "a place of dignity, honor and respect," the ex-police chief and author of more than 20 books and hundreds of articles on school safety said.

Victims' Stories

Having worked with many school systems in America and overseas, Dorn told the stories of some students who suffered under the tyranny of bullies.

Jacob, who was 7 years old in a photo he displayed, had worked all day to catch the fish he proudly held up for the camera, Dorn said. The boy suffers muscular dystrophy and knows he probably won't live beyond 30. Jacob asked Dorn about his work, and Dorn answered that he teaches people about school-safety issues, including bullying.

"Oh, Mr. Dorn, I know what that is," the boy said, "that's when kids make fun of me because I'm dying."

"It felt like somebody had hit me in the stomach with a sledge hammer," Dorn recalled. "He said 'that's when they make fun of me because I can't run like they can or throw a ball' and it was just eating at me, and I did exactly what I tell people not to do in my bullying workshops. I started telling Jacob what to do instead of listening to him. Instead of asking questions, I started telling him, 'Jacob you need to tell your teachers, you need to tell your principal.'

And he goes, 'why, Mr. Dorn?' And I know, being an expert and all, and writing books, that 12 to 18 percent of chronically bullied children, like the one you're about to hear about next, will never once tell an adult while they're in school that they've ever been bullied. The ones who do, they'll usually give us one or two shots, and if we let them down, they'll never trust us again. We have to be alert and look for the bullying."

Lack of Credibility

Research shows that children don't believe teachers or parents can help them, Dorn said. "We have to educate them; that's one of the things the Olweus program is going to do."

The adults at Jacob's school weren't the problem, he said.

"They don't let things like that happen at my school," Jacob told him. "They talk to us about accepting people who are different ... and the teachers watch us. They don't let people do things like that. No, this happens at the movie theater, the mall, somewhere else."

As bad as Jacob's situation was, "he could handle it because his school is what I call a place of dignity, honor and respect," Dorn said, "and that's what I think all of our schools should be."

Jacob's school is an old building without expensive security systems, but is staffed by alert people who care, Dorn said.

"Jacob can deal with all of the challenges life has thrown at him," he explained, "because they've got his back."

The American Way

Dorn's voice grew to shouting as he talked about social injustices this country has fought. Up to 20 percent of America's population died in righting the social injustice of slavery, he said. Americans enjoy rights and freedoms won through great sacrifices.

"And ladies and gentlemen, they died in scores on the beaches of Iwo Jima, and they died at Normandy Wood, and (in Vietnam), and they die in the desert today fighting for our way of life, and I suggest to you that until and unless every child in this country has the right to be different and to attend school," Dorn said, his voice suddenly becoming more quiet, "that we tarnish that great sacrifice that built this great country."

Another boy, named Steven, didn't have the right to be different in his school "and he would be bullied, he would be beaten up in his school, and he would begin to fear his school."

A teacher Dorn called "an advocate for the children" began to realize something might be wrong with Steven, and began to urge that he be tested for disabilities. He was later found to have dyslexia, and might never learn to read a book.

"But it wasn't his disability that was holding him back," Dorn said, "it was his fear of school. It was a place where he wasn't wanted, welcomed or loved." Steven was moved to a run-down inner-city school, where he found himself to be even more different; he was one of only five white children enrolled.

"At a glance, he's different from just about every other child in the building," Dorn said. He braces himself for the terror he knows will come, but nobody beats him up or even threatens him.

The boy becomes comfortable in the school whose principal greets students at the front door and whose "teachers stand watch at every moment," Dorn said, "and interact when a child does something wrong."

Students Step Up

Steven is accosted by a much-larger bully in his neighborhood one day, the speaker continued. He looks around and sees no adults who could save him. But several older children from his school, who he didn't know, appeared, and told the bully to leave Steven alone.

"It was a powerful thing, and the boy never bothered Steven again," Dorn said. "That's one of the dynamics they're going try to change in this district through the Olweus program, because the bystander is just as important as the child who's victimized and the one who does the victimizing."

Steven felt now that not only did the adults in his school want him to be safe, "but even the other students wanted him to be safe," Dorn said. "And he loved this school more than every other place."

He would have to move to a school in another town, however, where he was beat up his first day, and where he would be chased home and beat up on his own doorstep, Dorn said.

The Olweus program teaches that in addition to protecting their victims, bullies need to be stopped for their own sake, Dorn said. "They all need our help ... if we let our child constantly bully other children, they have a very high rate of incarceration as adults, and a very high rate of divorce, and the problems go on and on."

'Barracuda' Beatings

A boy Dorn described as a "barracuda" would beat Steven savagely in the school bathroom, Dorn said. One day, he forced Steven to pretend to perform an act of oral sex on him in front of others.

"He was degraded, humiliated," Dorn said. "He lost any sense of dignity, any sense of self-respect in the school. He had no desire to live, let alone to achieve in school."

Steven's troubles would continue through other schools that experienced incidents such as a riot, a stabbing on a school bus and the beating of a teacher to the floor of his classroom. He was cut on the leg by someone wielding a box-cutter but no adult he told about it would call police or even launch their own investigation into who did it.  

If the incident had been reported, "people might begin to think this school had safety problems," Dorn said. "They didn't want to harm the school's longstanding reputation."

Some People Cared

There were people in Steven's life who cared, Dorn said, like a bus driver "who would never allow a child to be victimized on his bus; he didn't know any other way ... the other buses seemed to be chaos, but not this bus."

One teacher refused to allow Steven to drop out when things became tough, another "would connect personally with every child who came his way," Dorn said.

A Boys Club volunteer, a Boy Scout leader, and police officers Steven met after getting into trouble, who donated off-duty time to help at-risk youth, all influenced him.

People like this may never be thanked by those they help, "but they'll never forget you, because I can tell you that I'm Michael Steven Dorn, the child you just heard about. They said I'd probably never learn to read a book, and said I'd almost assuredly never graduate from high school ... I can not only read books now, I can write them."

"I'll draw my last breath not able to forget and very thankful ... for all those people I've talked about and a whole bunch more. And I want to take a second to thank all of you, whatever drove you here tonight, for coming here, because it takes heart and it takes soul to take time out from this busy world for kids."

"Your presence here just speaks volumes," William Tell Elementary School Principal Laura Noble told the audience, "and we need you as partners" as all three school systems train their staffs on and launch the anti-bullying program. "We will keep you informed and ... we need your support."