Tracer Hickman and Blake Ludgate sat across from each other at a table during sixth-grade lunch Thursday afternoon at Craig Middle School.
As he finished up an apple, Tracer absentmindedly worked on homework while he joked with his friends just before the bell rang.
This time last year, Tracer often was teased and picked on by his now smiling friend sitting across the table.
“He used to bully me,” Tracer said, pointing his pencil at Blake. “But now we’re friends. This year he stopped, so now we’re friends.”
Blake admitted that throughout his school career, he has been on the giving and receiving end of bullying and that neither side was fun.
“I used to get picked on,” he said. “Then I started picking on kids. When I was getting bullied, I just felt really sad all the time. Then I realized the other kids might feel like that.”
One day at the end of fifth grade, everything changed between the two boys.
“One time he asked me if I needed a ride or if I wanted to go to the Boys & Girls Club with him,” Blake said. “I said I couldn’t because my mom wouldn’t let me, but we’ve been friends since then.”
Despite Tracer and Blake’s reconciliation, administrators, teachers and parents cannot do enough to stay ahead of bullying in schools.
Several CMS students agree that snide remarks, name-calling, and teasing are widespread within the schools walls, with the occasional violent outburst.
Administrators across the Moffat County School District are trying to find ways to intervene before a situation gets out of control.
At the elementary level, students start a non-violence program in preschool, where they learn empathy and impulse control, which is meant to teach students to think about their actions and not lash out.
But when bullying reaches the levels it sometimes does in middle school, there has to be disciplinary action.
In the mind of assistant principal Jill Hafey, however, she’d rather have the bullying issue diffused before a situation gets violent.
During lunch Thursday, a seventh-grade student sat outside Hafey’s office with a bag of ice pressed to his lip, the result of a series of harassments that came to a violent head.
The student had lashed out at someone who had been picking on him for a while, which Hafey said seemed to be a common thread among bullying-related fights at the school.
“This kid has never been in trouble,” she said gesturing to where he sat in the lobby. “I’ve never seen him in here before. There are little nitpicking things, things that don’t seem like a big deal when they’re isolated, like tripping and name-calling. I think kids minimize it, and before they know it, it’s crossed a line where they retaliate with a punch.”
But she said the biggest problem with diffusing social issues among students is knowing about them in the first place.
She said it’s unlikely for bystanders to report abuse to a teacher or administrator, and Hafey puts the responsibility on all of her students to prevent bullying.
She has gone as far as disciplining witnesses in a bullying incident who allowed the harassment to continue.
“I will stop it if I know about it,” she said. “I have 500 parents who are trusting me to keep their kids safe. I don’t tread lightly with it. Whether it’s suspension, or if they want to continue with this, they can soon deal with the law.”
For the most part, she said, middle schoolers aren’t a violent group, and they often don’t understand the consequences of their actions.
She said sometimes the perpetrators don’t realize what they’re saying or doing is hurtful to someone else.
“Sometimes you just have to tell them what they’re doing and put a label on it,” she said. “It’s bullying, and it’s not going to be tolerated. Most kids are really good kids. And it’s the kids that hold the key to stopping it. Peers will listen to peers more than they will listen to me.”
Middle school administrators hand out an anonymous survey to test the social waters among the students in an attempt to get a feel for what is going on.
There is also an anonymous tip line for students to send in messages about bullying incidents, but Hafey said very few use it.
Still, she said the cycles of bullying and submission have been going on a long time, and some students have resigned to being part of it.
“For some kids, it’s a way of life, and they just know they’re the lowest on the totem pole and it breaks my heart,” Hafey said. “And some kids end up retaliating, and it really breaks my heart, because we have to follow policy.
“It doesn’t help for one kid to stand up and say, ‘No, stop bullying me.’ That doesn’t work. Kids have to stick up for one another.”
In sixth-grade lunch Thursday, three students sat quietly at a lunch table near the edge of the cafeteria. They were best friends, and each experienced bullying in some form or another.
Emily Womble said she used to get teased a lot because she cared about what other people thought of her.
“Now I just say, ‘Whatever,’ and they’ve stopped,” Emily said. “I think they have horrible home lives and want other people to feel bad, too.”
Jordanne Flores, a quiet girl with long, dark hair, said not a day goes by she doesn’t get picked on in some way.
“It feels horrible,” she said. “I don’t like it. I don’t know why they do it.”
But across from her, her longtime best friend, Jovanna Powers, was adamant about not letting her friend continue to get hurt.
“I tell them to stop, and then I go get a teacher,” Powers said. “She’s my best friend, and I’m tired of it.”
Nicole Inglis can be reached at 875-1793, or firstname.lastname@example.org.