Focus on Bullying: Experts urge understanding reasons for bullying, empowering students to speak up

Joshua Kellogg The Daily Times
The Daily Times

Editor's note: This is part of The Daily Times' five-part series on bullying. The series started on March 29, and the final installment is being published today. Read previous stories at

FARMINGTON — Understanding the reasons why students turn to bullying may be the key to preventing the harmful behavior from continuing, experts say.

"That's the main thing about this issue. We know this is happening. We know it's rampant in our schools, but still people are afraid to talk about it," said Ivelisse Fernandez, an assistant professor of counseling and educational psychology at New Mexico State University. "Because we are afraid to talk about it, or we talk about it in a way that is not conducive for change, we are still having issues."

Fernandez's work focuses on social emotional learning and resilience, and she is currently working on several projects, including how to foster those skills in elementary school students.

Through her work in schools, Fernandez quickly realized the disconnect that exists between academics and students' emotional well-being.

"We forget that for children to survive the school environment and the demands placed on them, they have to be strong and have strong coping skills to navigate the school culture," Fernandez said. "What kids are lacking, we assume they are getting at home, and they are not."

Fernandez said it's important that as students become more aware of their emotions, they are comfortable talking about them. Developing students' emotional skill sets can improve school cultures and address bullying behaviors.

People who exhibit bullying behavior are often more prone to aggression, which is a trait that's fostered and reinforced over time. Some people who act on their aggressive behaviors lack empathy.

"They don't have that ability to put themselves in the shoes of their victims and understand what the consequences of those actions are," Fernandez said.

Most bullies have a positive attitude toward bullying and aggression, a belief that's often reinforced by a situation at home, at school or in the community, Fernandez said.

Research has shown bullies often come from households that employ authoritative parenting styles where harsh physical punishments are used for discipline, and parents aren't particularly nurturing when interacting with their children.

Fernandez said this style of parenting can cause children to turn to more aggressive behaviors to find a sense of control in their lives and cope with their emotions.

Another contributor to bullying can be students' negative perception of their school environment, particularly if they see their school as chaotic.

While bullying prevention programs can help change schools' cultures, more work often needs to be done to create an atmosphere in which students feel secure, Fernandez said.

"Schools have to analyze and assess their current school climates and the way they discipline and interact with students," she said. "We have to get the bully to understand what they did wrong and get them to process what was wrong about their actions."

Fernandez said empowerment and other social skills training help students communicate more effectively and can defuse or de-escalate bullying situations.

Empowering students to stop bullying

Tony Doland, who speaks about leadership and bullying, stood on stage at San Juan College's Henderson Performing Arts Center on Monday morning and talked with middle and high school students from around San Juan County.

As part of his "Change Starts With Me" program, Doland interacted with students using storytelling, jokes and audience participation. His message was that the best way to combat bullying is to empower young people to be the change they want to see.

Doland was speaking at the college as part of the All Great Accomplishments Value Equality, or AGAVE, club's third annual Anti-Bullying Day.

About 160 students showed up to hear Doland speak and participate in workshops about bullying.

The club started hosting the event because they saw a need in the community for a discussion on bullying, as well as to find ways to prevent the behavior, said Brenda Méndez de Andrade, coordinator for the college's Hispanic Latino Center.

"When this started three years, that's something the students wanted to do," she said. "We wanted to do something that would empower students to become leaders, stand up for themselves."

As part of a demonstration, Doland brought several students on stage to stand together on one side of the stage while two male students reenacted a bullying incident on another part of the stage.

He brought the students on stage to demonstrate that a group of bystanders can make a difference by standing up for their fellow students.

Doland also wanted to make sure students knew that rather than retaliate against the bully, it was more effective to create an all-inclusive atmosphere in which bullying is not tolerated.

"The reason that most bullies are bullying is they have been hurt, they come from a hard situation or they are confused," Doland said. "All of us are going through this weird phase of middle school, high school and trying to get through it, and the bully is just trying to see how he fits in."

Kayce Culler, a junior at Kirtland Central High School, said Doland's presentation had a profound effect on her.

"It made me realize that bystanders are the most important part of the whole process of getting everything settled down," Culler said. "It's not really the person being bullied who needs to stand up the most, but the people around him need to help."

Culler, along with fellow Kirtland Central juniors Mikayla Silva and Daniela Romero, are part of the school's Ignite! peer mentoring team for the freshman class.

Romero said she didn't realize so many people were being bullied at her school. And, she said, she needs to stand up for them more. She said she plans to talk to the freshmen she mentors about the lessons she learned from the presentation.

Silva said she believes people who have power, such as popular students and athletes, need to step up and not just watch from the sidelines.

"I feel like it's a reputation sort of thing. They think they need to be mean with the people who are being bullies so their reputation stays good," Silva said. "People who are bullies think it's cool, so if you are a bully, you're cool, and if you help, you're not."

Anna Strauss, a physical education teacher at Aztec High School, said she hoped students learned how to recognize ways to handle bullying and share it with their peers.

"I don't think we're going to stop it, but we need to have ways to make a difference and have people step up for each other and teach the quiet kids to reach out to a trusting adult," Strauss said.

Corey Arellano, a bilingual teacher at Farmington High School, said she attended Anti-Bullying Day last year and was impressed by the event.

"I think (the students) really value the idea behind making a positive impact on their peers," Arellano said. "When somebody gets inspired and it feels like they have the power to make a change in their life or their friends' lives, that's a big deal that can have such a domino effect."

Joshua Kellogg covers education forThe Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 and Follow him @jkelloggdt on Twitter.


March 29: Family speaks on suicide

April 1: School districts' policies

April 5: Cyberbullying

April 8: Bullying and mental health

Today: What causes bullying