(DETROIT FREE PRESS) - At Farrand Elementary in Plymouth, the 45 students trained as Bully Busters take their job of eradicating bullying seriously. For some of the kids, who have been bullied themselves, it's a personal mission.
"I wanted to make sure that didn't happen to those little kids," said fourth-grader Christian Strong, who endured name-calling, pushing and shoving in first through thirdgrades.
At schools across metro Detroit, students and adults are taking a stand against the serious and often unreported problem of bullying -- efforts that have intensified in the six months since Michigan lawmakers adopted Matt's Safe School Law, which requires anti-bullying policies in every school district and charter school in the state by Wednesday.
So far, 413 of the state's 862 school districts and charters have submitted policies to the Michigan Department of Education.
A number of districts had policies in place when the new law was enacted in December 2011, but had to update them to comply with the specifics of the law. School boards in several communities, including the Avondale and Troy districts, are to meet in the coming days to adopt new or updated policies.
The recent suicide of a 7-year-old Detroit boy, whose death police partially tie to bullying, and a growing number of cyber bullying cases is shining a spotlight on the often grave ramifications of bullying.
But as the deadline approaches, the question remains: How effective will these policies be in ridding schools of bullies?
The answer is very little if that's all schools do, Kevin Epling of East Lansing said. His son Matt -- for whom the law was named -- was 14 when he killed himself in 2002 after enduring bullying.
"The policy is just the first step," said Epling, codirector of Bully Police USA. What's more important, he said, is what schools are doing to engage students in preventing bullying.
There's a lot at stake. During the 2010-11 school year, there were more than 34,000 reported cases of bullying in Michigan schools -- more than 8,000 of them in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties.
The numbers actually have declined in recent years, but many experts say the reported cases are just a fraction of the actual incidents. Several local districts, for instance, reported zero bullying incidents that school year.
"That is likely to be as accurate as if a school district went an entire year without a student being absent," said Glenn Stutzky, clinical instructor on the faculty of the School of Social Work at Michigan State University. National statistics, he said, show that in a typical school, 20%-30% of the students have been negatively affected by bullying, as a victim, a witness or a bully.
He and Dr. Marlene Seltzer, medical director of the newly launched anti-bullying program -- No Bullying Live Empowered (NoBLE) -- at Beaumont Children's Hospital, said many kids are afraid to report bullying because they fear retaliation.
And the numbers -- and many policies -- don't take into account a pervasive but indirect form of bullying more popular with girls: rumor spreading, isolation and exclusion, body language and hateful looks, Stutzky said.
Efforts in schools to educate kids about bullying aren't just about creating awareness, said Mitchell Wochoski, 13, a seventh-grader at Larson Middle School in Troy, where students recently spent a week focused on bullying prevention that ended with a 2-mile march.
"It also gives hope," said Mitchell, president-elect of the student council. "Hope is one of the most important things you can give kids who are being bullied."
Cyber bullying 24/7
Bullying has taken a toll on Jarrett Odom, culminating recently when he learned some students at his school, Clifford Smart Middle School in Commerce Township, had created a Facebook page in his name that declared he was looking for work, liked men and liked having sex with men. Other kids also have bullied Jarrett, and he said he has grown to hate school.
"I don't like to go to a school or to any place where I'm constantly picked on and harassed," said Jarrett, an eighth-grader with autism.
It's not just the bullying that concerns his mother, Susann Odom. It's also the fact that her son's name and the name of his school were on the Internet, and any predator using key search words could come across the fake page and share the information with others. She said she thinks the page was up for at least a month.
Over the years she has taken a wide range of precautions to keep her son safe -- including using security cameras, an alarm system and high fences at their home and registering Jarrett's name in a national children's database.
"They brought danger to my door," said Odom, who said she takes the precautions because her son doesn't understand danger.
Officials with Walled Lake Consolidated Schools, where Clifford Smart is located, said when they learned about the Facebook page, the students were identified and their parents were contacted. Within hours, the page was taken down, they said.
"We were saddened and disappointed at the behavior of the boys who created the Facebook page," Superintendent Kenneth Gutman said in a statement.
He said the district's student code of conduct and discipline "were strictly enforced."
Odom said she heard the boys received two-day suspensions -- a punishment she said isn't enough.
"For every day that page was up there, that's how long they should have been expelled," Odom said.
Gutman said the district has had specific conversations with students about the dangers of social media, and said the district would launch a "PauseB4YouPost" campaign in the 2012-13 school year.
"We will do everything within our authority to work with students, staff and families to ensure that incidents like this do not happen again," he said.
Far more bullying these days is happening online, said Emma Springer, 12, a seventh-grader at Larson.
"It doesn't have to be pushing someone against the wall in the hallway. It can also be behind a computer screen."
And that, Epling said, increases the impact.
"Today's bullying is not one-on-one. Today's bullying is 100 to one. It's 1,000 to one. It's a totally different dynamic," Epling said.
Say, 'That's not cool'
At Farrand, the Bully Busters -- who patrol playgrounds, school buses and bus stops -- are credited with drastically cutting bullying incidents. When state Superintendent Mike Flanagan learned about the program during a recent visit to Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, he said it should be replicated statewide.
Farrand principal Troy Reehl created the program last year when he worked in another district, and refined it this school year with the help of school counselor Dani Evans.
Key to the program, Reehl said, is the involvement of students.
"When you empower students, they are willing to work with you," he said.
That's key, Epling said. Too many anti-bullying efforts in school involve students listening to lectures and not actively involved, he said.
"It's not something you teach as part of a class. It's how do you live," Epling said.
Evans takes the Bully Busters -- all fourth- and fifth-graders -- through a weeklong training session, where they learn how to resolve bullying conflicts.
Early in the year, fifth-grader Sophia Balow, 11, used to deal with at least 10 bullying incidents a week; now it's down to about one or two. Kids now are more aware of bullying and are even learning to resolve conflicts themselves, the kids said.
"It's really helped," said Ellie Caruso, 11, a fifth-grader.
At Larson, teachers Nancy Lining and Wendy Wilcox led the weeklong staff effort in mid-May that was dubbed P.A.U.S.E. for Peace (Peace, Acceptance, Understanding, Sympathy and Equality). The goal, Lining said, was for students to learn why bullying happens and what they can do about it.
"We wanted them to become concerned, compassionate citizens," Lining said.
Some students said the lessons will stick beyond that week. For instance, one of the catchphrases they learned to say if they or someone else is being bullied is, "That's not cool, just saying." Already, those words can be heard in the hallways, said seventh-grader Neha Sridhar, 12.
"Everyone should start saying it," said eighth-grader Tasneem Abd Elhamid, 14. "Even though some people think it's a corny phrase, it could touch a lot of people, because some people do choose to be impacted."
Emma, the Larson seventh-grader, said it's important for schools to work to prevent bullying.
"Just one school standing up for a week and spreading the awareness can get a lot more people to say this is something that can actually happen. We can actually stop bullying."
More Details: Bullying
• Verbal: Saying or writing mean things. Examples: teasing, name-calling, inappropriate sexual comments, taunting, threatening to cause harm
• Social: Involves hurting someone's reputation or relationships. Examples: leaving someone out on purpose, telling other children not to be friends with someone, spreading rumors about someone, embarrassing someone in public
• Physical: Involves hurting a person's body or things. Examples: hitting, kicking, spitting; tripping or pushing; taking or breaking someone's things; making mean or rude hand gestures
Steps adults can take to stop bullying on the spot:
• Intervene immediately.
• Separate the kids involved.
• Make sure everyone is safe.
• Meet any immediate medical or mental health needs.
• Stay calm. Reassure the kids, including bystanders.
• Model respectful behavior.
• Beaumont Children's Hospital opened last month what they've described as the state's first hospital-based, anti-bullying program. The program provides help through a 24/7 crisis hotline, operated by Common Ground, at 855-876-6253.
• Common Ground's Online Crisis Chat, available 4-10 p.m. weekdays. Go to www.commongroundhelps .org and click on "online chat services."
Detroit Free Press