Saturday, January 22, 2011

EWU Not Free From Bullying

When EWU junior "Tara Jones" rejoined the marching band last fall, she couldn’t have foreseen the discord waiting for her.

In a rehearsal on a piece that called for crowd noise, Tara’s section leader directed his screaming point-blank at her ear, causing terrible pain. She went home to bed immediately after school and woke up hurting the next day. When the ear pain was still present a week later, she finally went to her doctor, who said that some of the muscles in the ear had been shocked into protection mode and, as a result, pressure had built up behind the drum.

When Tara confronted the offending student, he laughed, saying he didn’t know such a thing was possible. Surely, he didn’t mean to hurt her, did he? Tara assumed he didn’t. But soon after this incident, a poor interaction between the pair ended with him calling her a rather colorful gender-based epithet.

After another incident involving property, Tara confided in an instructor, who pointed out where she went wrong and spoke with the section leader. For Tara, this criticism hit a sour note. “I felt invalidated when (the instructor) corrected me.”

Since then, the student has retaliated with more harassment, this time with more personal discriminating statements based on Tara’s overheard conversation with a friend. When the instructor asked for specifics, Tara was too embarrassed to share. Bullying has left Tara feeling powerless and angry.

According to the EWU policy on bullying (901-04,) bullying is “intentional, targeted at an individual or group, repeated, hostile or offensive, and creates an intimidating and/or threatening environment which produces a risk of psychological and/or physical harm.” The policy includes a spectrum of behaviors that are physical, verbal or written. To sum it up, the civility learned before life at EWU should be retained and practiced.

Behaviors that are harmful to an individual or property are referred to the campus police. Detective Quincy Burns says the university takes this issue very seriously, but that harassment issues don’t make it to them unless it becomes criminal or the victim has been threatened with violence.

Criminal repercussions are straightforward, but the disciplinary actions as outlined in the bullying policy are ambiguous. The policy says, “The supervisor or other appropriate official will take action to prevent future violations and to administer appropriate sanctions.” Karen Wanjico, Violence Prevention Victim Advocate (VPVA) says that discipline is handled on a case-by-case basis. After a hearing, the sanctions could be a dismissal from the university, in extreme cases, or student education, like an interview with police or a personal reflection paper based on research.

Catching the bully before the behavior becomes criminal is doing the student a favor, says Detective Burns. Certainly, education is a priority at the university; in real-world scenarios, students could face natural consequences ranging anywhere from a human-resource referral to job loss to a civil harassment suit or worse.

Bullies can get away with their behavior if their victims are undereducated about their rights. At EWU, the weakest point of the bullying policy is student training. According to the policy, the Vice President for Student Affairs is responsible for annual training on standards and procedures pertaining to bullying. During New Student and Orientation Week, students had the option to attend a 40-minute session on discrimination, sexual harassment and reporting criteria. Other than that, where do victims learn that the behaviors they’ve been tolerating are actually red flags? Sexual harassment and assault help referrals are highly visible on campus, but for students like Tara, comparing your own experiences with that extreme is enough to dismiss the inappropriate behavior and pretend it’s no big deal.

Gary Gasseling, “the head cheese of the big red barn,” stated that students often downplay red flags, but campus police want students to come in. “When you don’t report, you are a part of the problem.” Toughing it out doesn’t make the victim stronger, it enables the bully.

So what should bullied students do? When recipients of unwanted behavior are dissatisfied with or unable to approach their instructor for help, they can visit with first responders, who are staff and faculty trained to assist in these situations. They can help students through the complaint processes. Another resource is Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) in Martin Hall.
The direct, more formal approach would be to visit the Office of the Dean of Students and file a complaint. According to Michelle Helmerick, Assistant to the Dean of Students, after a complaint, the Dean will listen and sort through the matter confidentially. She also said that students who are employees should report to their immediate supervisors, Human Resources or another official.

The Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities houses more student resources, including conflict resolution services. VPVA Wanjico’s job as advocate is to help students afraid for their safety. She helps with practical needs such as switching classes or dorm rooms to navigating the legal system with the appropriate court order.

While Tara’s case hasn’t become violent yet, she has visited Heather Robinson, a communications professor and first responder. “She listened, validated my feelings, gave me advice and a phone number.” Tara went on to say that Robinson was there to point her to resources, but wouldn’t hear about the situation again unless Tara came to her personally with the details. Confidentiality is a priority at the university.

Since then, Tara has been talking to other students and says that people are watching out for her. “The music building is a tight community.”

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