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New law targets bullies at Oklahoma schools

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Cassandra Meyers' middle school classmates threw trash at her, hit her with books and spilled food on her clothes.

She spent hours crying behind a locked door in the school bathroom.

``Whoever said sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me was the biggest liar in the world,'' said Meyers, now a 17-year-old senior at John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City. ``A bruise will go away but words will ring in your ears for the rest of your life.''

It's too late for Meyers, but Oklahoma is joining a growing group of states that are trying to do something about bullies who pick on students.

A law signed by the governor last week requires school districts to develop anti-bullying programs by Nov. 1. It also orders the state Education Department to send program ideas to school districts.

Ten other states have similar laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Seven of those states passed a bullying law last year.

``For a long time we've thought, 'Oh that's just teasing, that's just kids,''' said Gayle Jones, Oklahoma's safe and drug-free schools coordinator. ``It's just kind of sad that it took some nationwide tragedies to draw our attention to something that has gone on for hundreds of years.''

The two students who went on a suicidal rampage at Columbine High School in 1999 were teased by classmates. Later that year, a school shooting in Oklahoma further worried state education officials.

A seventh-grader fired 15 shots and wounded five classmates at Fort Gibson Middle School before a teacher persuaded him to surrender.

Last May, a Weleetka ninth-grader left school to get a gun so he could shoot bullies who had urinated on him, authorities said. A classmate who tried to stop was shot in the buttocks. Nobody else was hurt.

And in December 2000, an 18-year-old Coweta student who committed suicide said he did it because of bullying, according to the state Health Department.

``Evidently, bullying has gotten worse,'' said Sen. Herb Rozell, D-Tahlequah, the bill's author and a former teacher. ``I had a lot of teachers approach me and tell me it was happening all over the state.''

Fred Poteete, a Tahlequah school safety coordinator who recently organized his district's bullying prevention program, plans to help other districts set up similar programs by next fall.

In the Tahlequah school district _ one of 23 in the nation using a federal grant to fight peer abuse _ students learn about bullying as part of the curriculum. And in the school hallways, hidden from view near drinking fountains and bathrooms, there are wooden boxes with locks.

The boxes are called SNAP, Student Needs Assistance Pronto. They collect notes from students about who is a bully and who is a target.

A bullying prevention person receives the notes, then calls the bullies and the targeted students into her office for chats. The most serious note this year was about a student's threat to bring a potential weapon to school, Poteete said.

School employees _ including bus drivers, cooks and custodians _ can fill out referral forms describing bullying incidents.

``Our goal is to keep every child safe at school,'' Poteete said. ``If I worry about being bullied, I'm not going to worry about my algebra test next hour. I'm going to worry about how I'm going to walk home today.''

Bullying includes pushing and shoving, but also name-calling, gestures and even glares, he said.

Poteete has seen groups of middle school girls bully another girl by talking constantly about a party she wasn't invited to or vacating a lunch table as soon as she sits down.

``Bullying for girls can be very sneaky and hurtful,'' he said.

Shelly Campbell, a teacher at John Marshall High School, said adults often don't notice those subtler forms of intimidation.

``We don't sit at the lunch table,'' she said. ``We don't stand at the lockers with them all day. And some of it is not even spoken. Some of it is shunning and nonverbal cues that we are not aware of.''

Other Oklahoma schools that have developed bullying programs include Noble, Fort Supply and Putnam City, said Kathy Middleton of the state Health Department.

In the 1999-2000 school year, more than 12,000 students and teachers were bullied by students in Oklahoma schools, she said. Ten percent of students who drop out of school before graduation do it because of bullies, Middleton said.

Some districts opposed the bullying legislation because they resented another state mandate, officials said. But Rozell points out that his bill allows districts the freedom to set up whatever bullying program they want.

He said the new law will help students who are harassed, as well as bullies themselves. Many school yard bullies end up shoplifting, vandalizing, fighting and using drugs, he said.

His bill says that 60 percent of boys who were bullies in grades six through nine are convicted of at least one crime as adults.

The emotional scars bullies inflict on their targets can last a lifetime, he said.

Meyers, who said she was scrawny and wimpy in middle school, put a stop to her torment when she found the courage to stand up for herself.

Now she makes it her business to get between a bully and a student being taunted. She wishes someone _ particularly her teachers or principals _ would have done that for her.

``I feel very cheated,'' she said. ``It took me a long, hard year and a half or two years to get over it.''
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