As a psychology instructor at a Wyoming junior college, Marissa Vishnu-Mack has some insights into bullying. Then, as a mom, she cares that much more about the issue.
It may help explain why Vishnu-Mack expressed disappointment in a Wyoming school district’s approach to bullying prevention.
Despite pledges to “zero tolerance” and “anti-bullying” campaigns by school districts including Sweetwater County School District No. 1, Vishnu-Mack is skeptical, calling the district’s bullying prevention program a “one-size model.”
“It’s a good Band-Aid on it, but are you really addressing the issues of why?” asked Vishnu-Mack, who instructs at Western Wyoming Community College. “Typically, a lot of the research on bullying will say that a lot of these zero-tolerance policies can backfire.”
Vishnu-Mack, Treatment Coordinator Cassandra Crumpton and WWCC Wellbeing & Accessibility Director Amy Galley talked with me about how a child in southwestern Wyoming may feel after being bullied, what they may need and help they can get.
Vishnu-Mack was informed that three incidents that reportedly occurred in school districts No. 1 and 2, the school districts in Wyoming’s Sweetwater County. She was told particularly that an adult man reportedly threatened a student and that the man admitted to the cops his doing so, but police did not take any action.
“That was unacceptable,” Vishnu-Mack said.
Crumpton is the treatment coordinator for Wyoming’s Sublette County and is a former community prevention specialist for the Sweetwater County chapter of Prevention Management Organization of Wyoming. After she was asked how a Sweetwater County child may feel after being bullied, what they may need and what help they can get, she said “what’s the most appropriate way to tell people to do the right thing?” and “there are so many things I want to say … I’m trying really hard to be careful.” Sandwiched between those remarks was “for the victims of bullying, we need to start believing what they are saying is true.”
She then said “there is no reason to not be responsible. That’s the nicest way of saying it … I would have been cussing a lot and all kinds of things, because it’s a sad thing when you have to worry about adults confronting your children in a public-school setting.
“If my kid were acting out, I hope somebody would call them on it,” Crumpton said of the other two incidents, where students were reportedly the bullies. “It’s frightening.”
District leaders “need to be mindful of the scope of the problem,” Vishnu-Mack said. “Before deciding on a discipline policy, they need to determine the scope of the problem and not just zero tolerance.
“Interventions, they really need to be tailored to the specific needs of the child,” Vishnu-Mack said. “You have to think of the fact, is it psychological bullying? Is it physical? It’s hard … with this one-size model.”
A victim’s feelings
“There is some shame and some guilt; some anxiety; anger,” Vishnu-Mack said. “Probably feeling a bit defeated.”
“It certainly shakes how they feel about themselves and we certainly see students (at WWCC) that reported that something happened in grade school,” Galley said. “Maybe they are very self-conscious … maybe they don’t feel confident in making new friends.”
“Isolation” can result, and that “can be a contributing factor to depressive episodes,” Crumpton said. “It can make an individual feel worthless and hopeless, which are all contributing factors to a potential mental-health crisis – a suicide crisis.”
“Feeling like people do not have your back can be detrimental to your state of mind,” Crumpton said.
“It’s important to teach students that they should never ignore a student who has been victimized by a bully,” Vishnu-Mack said. “A lot of times, you will have victims of bullying themselves who are afraid to tell teachers because they are afraid of retaliation (from the bully).”
“Sometimes they fear that the teacher does not care what is happening,” Vishnu-Mack said of the victim. “A lot of victims, they sometimes suffer in silence … and they are not telling anyone … they are not telling their parents; not telling their teachers … they start to internalize these emotions.”
With victims of harassment, “there needs to be interventions,” Vishnu-Mack said.
“They should not blame themselves with experiences with harassment, as we saw with the whole #MeToo movement,” Vishnu-Mack said. “And the peers, they need to understand that bullying is a school problem and everyone, in essence, is responsible.”
Victims “need time to tell us our full story and we need to listen to respond – not to react once a kid does disclose that something else is going on,” Crumpton said, then mentioning that each teacher and school administrator in a Wyoming school district “have been required to obtain suicide prevention training by the Jason Flatt Act,” a law now in 19 states, according to The Jason Foundation.
Crumpton then was unsolicited in offering that Jen Allen and Brent McMurtrey from Eastside Elementary School have embraced the act and foundation.
Victims “certainly need support,” though the help is varied, Galley said, mentioning victims reaching out to “an outside source” like “friends” or “family.”
“They need support from the school, certainly … if it is indeed taking place at school,” Galley then remarked.
Social media has allowed bullying to “creep … into everyday life that you can’t get away (from),” she then said.
“Do things that make them feel good,” Galley advised. “Help them facilitate friendships.”
Anyone needs to be taught “how to intervene.”
“We need to know when we can … stand up for somebody,” Galley said.
“Bullies are some of the more popular classmates,” Vishnu-Mack said. “They seem as tough and cool and others try to imitate them because they try to get attention.”
“When we look at the difference between bullying and just a simple conflict between peers, you are looking at an intention to cause harm, and in many ways, you are looking at the imbalance of power between the perpetrator and the victim,” Vishnu-Mack said. “So typically, you will find somebody who is physically stronger picking on someone who is weaker. An older student picking on a younger student.
“(Bullies) don’t have this sort of self-awareness,” Vishnu-Mack added. “I think that’s where the psychology would come in.
“It’s a myth” that bullies act as they do because they have low self-esteem, Vishnu-Mack said.
Crumpton recommended several particular resources:
- TrevorProject.org LGBTQ+ hotline: 1-866-488-7386
- National suicide prevention lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. Free 24/7.
- Crisis text line: WYO to 741741. Free 24/7.
“Some people are more comfortable talking about it via text,” Crumpton said. “That would be a resource I’d encourage all parents to put into their children’s phone – and all parents should put it into their damn phone, actually.”
Then she added, “Everybody should put it into their own damn phone!”
I also contacted SWCSD No. 1 counselors Teresa Klatka and Christi Carson on Crumpton’s recommendation, but they did not return the requests for comment. Crumpton also recommended Family Dynamics Director Jill Johnson, but she recommended others in turn and they did not return requests for comment.
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