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She also classifies nonphysical, nonverbal behaviors, including gestures and making faces, as bullying. "They happen quite a bit and can have an effect as well," Nishina says. "But they're very subtle and very difficult for us to capture and assess well." Even tougher to assess is the growing phenomenon of cyberbullying--vicious text messages or e-mails, or websites on which kids post degrading rumors. A recent survey of more than 5,500 teens found that 72% of them said online bullying was just as distressing as the face-to-face kind.
The damage from bullying doesn't stop after graduation. According to Dr. William Coleman, professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, bullies are four times as likely as the average child to have engaged in criminal behavior by age 24; they also grow up deficient in social, coping and negotiating skills and are more likely to engage in substance abuse. Victims have similar problems; they also have fewer friends and are more likely to be depressed.
Since most bullying takes place furtively--in hallways, bathrooms, the back of the school bus--teachers have a hard time controlling it. It's not impossible, though: with the help of Nishina's UCLA adviser and study co-author, Jaana Juvonen, a local elementary school put together a program in which teachers, parents and students review antibullying rules at the start of each year. The students do role-playing exercises and sign contracts promising not to bully. Teachers incorporate lessons about bullying and coping strategies into classwork. The school has also hired extra staff to monitor places like lunchrooms and playgrounds.
A program like that might have saved a lot of trouble for the Darien, Ill., public-school system. Last October an eighth-grader who was allegedly harassing Joey Urban, now 14, wound up rupturing Joey's eardrum with a poke from a lollipop stick. The Urbans are suing, complaining that the attacker received only a three-day suspension. The school district says that the boys were friends and that the injury was an accident that occurred while they were roughhousing.
La Shanda Trimble won't have to resort to the courts. Next year she'll be attending the Alliance School, founded to create a safe atmosphere for students who feel unwelcome in traditional settings. Says co-founder Tina Owen, an English teacher: "A lot of adults think 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.' But these students seemed to be hurting really bad." --Reported by Elizabeth Coady/ Chicago, Avery Holton/Austin, Sora Song/New York and Sonja Steptoe/Los Angeles