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Editorial: An anti-bullying pulpit

School districts have tried anti-bullying campaigns for years. It’s impossible to quantify their success — how do you measure a bad thing that didn’t happen? — but most of us know bullying when we see it, which is far too frequently in the Buffalo Public Schools.

Erie County Family Court Judge Brenda M. Freedman is taking the effort to curb such behaviors beyond school walls by initiating an anti-bullying task force. Freedman, a former teacher, has been working with the school district on truancy, transit use and other student issues. Kudos to her for realizing the impact to society of kids getting bullied, and for doing something about it.

The task force is in its infancy, at the “discussions with stakeholders” stage. We can’t wait to see what courses of action it comes up with. That, of course, will be the real measure.

A story in The News about the task force pointed out that bullying has been on the rise in the city, with 38 percent of respondents to a 2017 survey of Buffalo students reporting they had been bullied on school property.

National statistics estimate about one in five students in elementary through high school are bullied by their peers, according to Jamie Ostrov, a psychology professor at the University at Buffalo and a faculty affiliate at UB’s Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention.

High-profile cases of bullying, often with tragic results, have focused more attention on the issue in recent years. Jamey Rodemeyer was the 14-year-old student at Williamsville North High School who took his own life in September 2011 after years of being bullied about his sexual orientation. His case attracted national media attention, including from pop singer Lady Gaga.

Rodemeyer’s ordeal was a vivid demonstration of how bullying is not confined to “rough” neighborhoods or underserved communities, but can reach students everywhere. All you have to be is a little bit different.

Stories in The News have pointed out the challenges faced by some students from other countries moving to Buffalo, not speaking English and trying to find their way in the public schools. Some run into bullying just for the way they speak, or because or they don’t yet fit in.

New groups have always faced such obstacles, whether they were immigrants from Italy, Ireland or Poland in previous generations. We now know that bullying puts not just the affected youngsters at risk, but has an impact on our communities.

Freedman said bullying leads “to actual physical crimes … physical assaults … carrying of weapons. And because it leads to that, the judicial system is now involved.”

There’s also the emotional and psychological harm that bullying inflicts on the young psyches of our future adults. One schoolmate of Rodemeyer had suggested that Jamey should kill himself. That is almost certain to be a burden that child will carry. What if adults had acted sooner?

Text messaging and social media enable new ways of peer harassment, much of it invisible to anyone but the victim. Freedman understands the urgency of getting a grip on that.

“By the time we see it,” she said, “it’s very late in the game, so maybe one of our conversations can be, ‘Could we figure out a way to intervene earlier to have a better understanding of what’s going on?’ … That’s one of the things we’ll have to look at.”

The task force has about two dozen local partners, including parent groups, members of law enforcement, anti-violence organizations and the Buffalo Public Schools. If the coalition does nothing more than draw more students, parents, other family and teachers into the discussion about how to curb bullying, it will be a worthwhile investment of time and energy.

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