Editor's note: This is the first of two stories on the issue of school bullying. The second will appear next Sunday, Sept. 26.

She was the weird kid with few friends.

And so was he.

She was a little overweight, loved medieval literature and punk music.

He was short and bug-eyed, and his black hair was spiked a foot in the places where his head wasn't shaved bald.

It was the mid-1980s, "The Breakfast Club" generation. The life skills class at Sentinel High School, studying the subject of love and nuptials, collectively decided these two punk-goth kids should get "married" for a class wedding project.

When Melissa Bruninga-Matteau and her "groom" refused, the class pounced on them, unleashing a string of insults and vicious taunts while everybody else laughed and pointed. "Weirdo," they said.

The pair might have turned to their teacher for comfort, Bruninga-Matteau said, but the teacher had joined in.

"It made me totally committed to getting the hell out of Missoula as fast and as far as possible," said Bruninga-Matteau, who today is an adjunct professor of humanities at Yavapai College in Arizona.

Flash-forward 25 years. The Bruninga-Matteaus of today - quiet or shy or disabled or artistic or gay or fringe or however else they're different - are no longer alone in Missoula's schools, at least not on paper. Bullying and its once-silent sufferers are now out of the shadows and in the spotlight of school administrators, teachers and a public proclaiming itself fed up with child tormentors.

But over the last decade, in their quest to stop it, Missoula's schools first had to ask:

What is bullying?

It's a short and simple question with a complex answer. Failure to get it right can put young, developing egos and entire futures at risk.

Amy Foster-Wolferman, a K-12 education specialist at the Montana Safe Schools Center housed at the University of Montana, conducts training sessions on bullying with school districts across the state.

"The first thing," she said, "is getting the staff on the same page as to what it is, and what it is not."

***

Like almost every adult bullied as a kid, Bruninga-Matteau can recall in precise detail all the traumatic moments - and there were many during her Missoula youth.

So painful are the memories that when Bruninga-Matteau became a teacher, she dreaded going to work at the high school where she first taught. She only lasted a year.

"Stepping into a high school classroom was one of the hardest things I have ever done," she said. "I was, believe it or not, terrified of 14-year-olds."

So instead, she pursued her doctorate in humanities at the University of California at Irvine because "teaching in high school was something I could not face."

Her experiences speak to a key distinction between bullying and mere teasing.

It's the dark side of what Friedrich Nietzsche called "the will to power."

"They are looking for a victim," said Diane Hipp, a suicide-prevention counselor, children's author and co-developer of the "Kelso's Choice" anti-bullying program. "They're looking for someone, for lack of a better term, to prey on."

Hipp, who lives in Stevensville, is one of the speakers who will address a daylong seminar on bullying and conflict resolution on Oct. 1 at Ruby's Convention Center, sponsored by Families First Missoula.

The power that bullies assert over their victims is skewed greatly in their favor - by their size, age, social status at school or by sheer numbers of friends or followers.

When the bully discovers his or her victim is intimidated or scared, the bullying often gets more intense or frequent.

"Bullying is repetitive," said Marianne Moon, the Safe Schools coordinator for MCPS. "It's not just that your kid went to school and got punched out. It's intimidation, and it's long term."

Regular rough play, teasing and the occasional fight are normal occurrences and should not be confused with bullying, said Mike Williams, principal at Franklin Elementary, which has implemented a successful anti-bullying philosophy. (That program will be explained and explored in next Sunday's Missoulian.)

"One black eye is not bullying, necessarily," said Williams, who brought the "Kelso's Choice" program to Franklin five years ago. "That's a conflict, and you mediate a conflict."

Here's what you don't mediate.

Foster-Wolferman of the Montana Safe Schools Center slid a DVD into a laptop and played a video from the "Steps to Respect" program she shares with Montana school districts.

A grainy surveillance video shows a group of elementary school children on a playground at a Seattle school. A few students begin to circle a boy, who is then knocked to the ground and repeatedly beaten and kicked by several children as the others stand around and watch.

"It's disturbing, isn't it?" she said.

***

"You look like a big, nasty lesbian. So, I was just wondering if insecurities in your sexuality have anything to do with how you treat our site, homosexual."

You don't have to scroll down very far to find that message left on a website for teens to chat about their issues.

Bullying hasn't changed much since "Cain and Abel started it," said Judy Wright. But the methods have.

The Missoula author, educator and speaker on parenting, relationships and self-esteem has a particular new interest in cyber-bullying and is writing a book on the subject. She is also the founder of cyberbullyinghelp.com.

Not all cases are as high-profile as that of Phoebe Prince, the Massachusetts teen who commited suicide, allegedly after prolonged cyber-bullying. Several of her schoolmates face stalking, harassment and other charges.

But the Internet is a vast new virtual playground where bullies thrive, Wright said. And that has changed everything.

"We used to consider our homes safe," said Wright, who has worked with Head Start and Hospice. "If we can just make it home, we'll be safe. But cyber-bullying goes beyond that, because it follows you home."

Websites, online message boards, Myspace and Facebook have exposed another glaring difference between bullying and normal conflict: the absence of empathy. Anonymity - or at least the perception of it - feeds the bully's aggression because it negates the natural human tendency toward empathy.

It's especially rampant online, because the bully can't see the "nonverbal messages" - body language - of the victim, who may be in great pain.

Children speak with their bodies, even more than they do with their words, Wright said.

"And that nonverbal message is what people believe," she said. "Face to face, a bully might think, ‘Oh, this kid is going to start bawling,' and then stop. When they don't have that buffer of body language, there are none of those emotional signals."

Like other anti-bullying speakers and educators, Wright said it is important to distinguish bullying from mere teasing or criticism.

Some parents believe their child's feelings should never be hurt, and that all children should be friends. And that's entirely unrealistic.

"Not everybody is going to like them," said Wright. "And that's just a fact of life. What we don't need to do is build a self-fulfilling prophecy, where everybody is a victim."

Next Sunday: How Missoula's schools respond to bullying, and resources available to students, parents and schools.

Reach reporter Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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