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Online Course Arms Educators and Parents Against Bullying

July 2014

Long-haired woman in black business jacket stands in a hallway.

Karyl Ketchum, assistant professor of women and gender studies, is nationally recognized for her efforts to establish a bullying-free environment in schools. She developed Cal State Fullerton's class on understanding and addressing the issues.

When her then-17-year-old daughter – star of the school musical "Rent" – was threatened with rape and murder by some Corona del Mar High School football players five years ago, Karyl Ketchum took action.

Ketchum, an assistant professor of women and gender studies, became an active, nationally recognized voice for establishing a bullying-free environment in schools. She battled school administrators in court and worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to mandate training in sexism and homophobia for school leaders.

Believing her work is not yet complete, she designed a one-of-a-kind, one-unit, online course, "Understanding and Addressing Bullying," aimed at teachers, administrators and parents that is offered through University Extended Education. It is believed to be the first and only course of its kind offered nationally.

"The course was developed largely in response to the many phone calls and personal appeals I've fielded from parents throughout Orange County desperate to help their children who were targets of bullies in the schools," Ketchum said. "The experience of seeing how a school can turn itself around once the people involved get a little bit of education was really a profound experience for me and my family. Maybe we can prevent these cases of bullying before they happen, as opposed to being reactive."

While new California laws help to better protect students, Ketchum said, higher education is not successfully addressing the issue of bullying in the schools. The CSUF course discusses the role of technology in bullying and reviews new laws concerning bullying and cyber bullying, such as the California Safe Place to Learn Act, certain portions of the California Education Code and the California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act. More new legislation, referred to as Seth's Law, requires schools to have anti-bullying policies and provides a timeline school officials must follow when investigating student claims of discrimination based on protected categories.

Bullying has a predatory and sadistic component that sets it apart from the normal way that friends tease each other. The California Department of Education defines bullying as "a desire to hurt + a hurtful action + a power imbalance + repetition (typically) + an unjust use of power + evident enjoyment by the aggressor + a sense of oppression/fear on the part of the target." The definition is important, experts noted, because mislabeling behaviors as "bullying" can aggrandize incidents of thoughtlessness and insensitivity or mask the seriousness of incidents, such as sexual assault and murder.

"First and foremost, our hope was that administrators struggling with this would look to this class as a resource for their legal responsibility to protect these students and think more deeply about the impact of bullying," said James Gilliam, deputy executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, who contributed a video lecture to the course. "Bullying has the potential to have a lifelong impact on victims. It's our hope that by educating folks about their responsibility, we will change their hearts and minds."

A south Orange County parent who has seen the lasting consequences of bullying, Lori Duron is the mother of two elementary school-age sons and author of the well-reviewed recent memoir, "Raising My Rainbow," a heartfelt account of her family's adventures raising a "gender-creative" son. When C.J., her youngest son, began dressing in girl's clothing and playing with Barbie dolls, her eldest son, Chase, was relentlessly bullied for his brother's behavior. Duron and her husband, Matt, consulted Ketchum for help, discovering that their sons had legal safeguards that protected them.

"We need to teach kids to stand up to things that are wrong and speak out. They should recognize bullying behavior and become global citizens who know that everyone's different and celebrate those differences," Duron said. "Studies show that if students, especially LGBT students, have just one person on campus who understands them, their chances of engaging in substance abuse, unsafe sex, depression and suicide are reduced."

With Ketchum's assistance, the Duron family fought bullying and worked with their school district to provide a safe environment for their sons. Lori and Matt Duron are featured in a video segment in CSUF's online class, offering firsthand insights and discussing their experiences.

Tragic recent news stories about desperate young people coping with cyber bullying – some of whom have ended their lives – have kept the issue in the headlines, acknowledged Jodi Davis, assistant professor of women and gender studies and the course's previous instructor.

"Bullying is not a new phenomenon, but the way that people bully is changing," Davis noted. "It can transcend school hallways and impact students' lives at home through social media and technology. Bullying is a buzzword now, but the cause is real. Young people experience bullying for a variety of reasons, but perhaps some of the most damaging are those caused by restrictive ideas surrounding sexuality and gender."

Bullying's consequences – including trauma, self-harm and violence – must be dealt with by educators and other adults, broadening their perspectives and fostering their understanding of sexuality and gender, Davis said. "Successfully addressing bullying means having tough conversations about homophobia and misogyny to help create a social structure that promotes and encourages acceptance and advocacy."

Kristin Beals, an associate professor of psychology who contributed a social psychological perspective to the course, has studied the effects of stigma as it manifests in conjunction with sexual orientation and gender identity.

"This issue is important because bullying hurts," Beals noted. "It is the responsibility of administrators, teachers and parents to make our schools safe for all students."

Ronni Sanlo, another course contributor, was the keynote speaker at the University's recent Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Symposium, which addressed issues of inequities within the gay, lesbian and transgender community.

An author, lecturer and internationally known scholar on creating and maintaining safe and inclusive school campuses, Sanlo noted that often the perpetrators of bullying lash out at others because they are insecure about their own sexual, physical and emotional identities. They also operate in "groupthink" mode and rarely question their own upbringing and ideas.

Successfully addressing bullying means creating a supportive, kind and caring school environment, not vilifying the bully, agreed Judy Chiasson, coordinator in the Los Angeles Unified School District's Office of Human Relations, Diversity and Equity, and another course contributor.

"This course helps people engage in thoughtful, creative thinking," Chiasson said. "Teachers really need to be strong advocates for children, to take hold of the political and learning environment. While bullying is radically over-identified now, teachers who understand what bullying really is can be stronger and more appropriate advocates on their campuses."

For more information about the course, visit extension.fullerton.edu/bullying.

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