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CON: Violence, even against bullies, is never the answer

By Jessica Priest
Nov. 25, 2012 at 5:25 a.m.

Devin Brown reverse punches target pads at Victoria Karate Academy Tuesday November 6, 2012.

If history has shown mankind anything, it's that an eye-for-an-eye attitude isn't the solution - least of all when it comes to dealing with a bully.

That's the message Curtis Lavarello, executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council, will preach to the masses this February at a national bullying conference in Orlando, Fla.

Lavarello, a school resource officer for 18 years, has heard every excuse in the book.

He said students can't claim self-defense if they struck back.

"There's nothing in the law that allows for hitting back, just like there's nothing in the law that says just because someone broke into your house, you have the right to break into their house," Lavarello said, "That's a hard pill for some fathers and some parents to swallow, but it is the law, and it's what our cities, our communities, our states and our country are bound by."

He said a school establishing a policy in which kids are allowed to fight back may open the floodgates for numerous physical altercations to occur, thus perpetuating the cyclical nature of the bullied becoming the bully.

He said administrators need to get innovative when creating a comfortable environment for reporting bullying, such as setting up and vetting anonymous tips through social media and training even cafeteria workers on the subject. He said 25 percent of schools still don't do that, although Texas is more progressive.

He said teachers can pick up on bullying behavior simply by tracking students' attendance records for certain classes and slipping grades.

Lavarello also recommended that parents in districts that ignore bullying behavior file a civil suit against the school or contact the U.S. Department of Education.

William McArdle, principal and president at St. Joseph High School, said the first fight he witnessed after taking over the school almost 16 years ago was also the last.

For the 325 students enrolled there, bullying just isn't an issue, he said.

In fact, McArdle won't say it outright, but the school's East Red River campus could be considered a safe haven for some bullying victims as it draws 12 transfers each year from other Crossroads school districts.

"They certainly come for any number of reasons, but the strength of the school is that we're faith-based," he said. "Our students are well prepared for college. .... I think certainly discipline and those other safety issues are a part of the reason parents choose St. Joseph High School."

That's why McArdle can't fathom someone ever needing to raise their fist.

"We certainly don't condone any type of physical reaction. We do feel young people have many other resources" at their fingertips, such as reporting unruly behavior to a trusted faculty member, McArdle said.

He said each situation is evaluated individually, and the accused are considered innocent until proven guilty. St. Joseph has some leeway on its bullying policy because it's a private school and, therefore, is not subject to Texas House Bill 1942.

Josette Saxton, mental health policy associate for Texans Care for Children, an advocacy group, opposes one provision in the bill that allows for removing a bully from the classroom. She called it a short-term solution.

"That should be the last resort," she said, pointing to studies that show just one disciplinary referral is the leading predictor in Texas to having a child then being involved in the juvenile justice system.

A Texas Appleseed study called it "the school-to-prison pipeline." They said in- and out-of-school suspensions need to be re-evaluated after it clocked the recidivism rate for them in the 2005-06 school year at 30 percent.

Victoria County Sheriff's Office Deputy Kenneth Wells said hitting back could land someone in jail.

"It could be an assault; it could be a misdemeanor; it could be a felony depending upon how much damage you do," he said.

Wells traded out the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program five years ago in favor of one geared toward persuading students not to affiliate with gangs, but he still devotes a lot of his time coming up with strategies that prevent bullied kids from lashing out.

He said there was only so much Victoria school district could have done in a case that led a father to picket a school after he claimed his son fought back against a bully.

"We've taken every measure we can to prevent it. It's up to the students now to stop being bystanders and report the incidents. That's all," Wells said.

Related stories:

PRO: You should offer reasonable defense against a bully, click HERE

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