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Wendy Reuer, Published October 09 2010

North Dakota needs anti-bullying law, Fargo parent says

Christine Heinze knows school officials are doing what they can for her 13-year-old son, but when she heard he was talking about killing himself to escape bullying, she decided it was time to do more.

The Fargo parent is taking the issue to the state level by pushing for stricter laws on bullying in schools.

The school hallways can be brutal for even the most “normal” child, but for 5-foot 10-inch tall autistic Connor Heinze, who also suffers from Asperger’s syndrome and a legion of other special needs, Christine Heinze says school is downright dangerous.

Heinze said hideous rumors have been started about Connor at his Fargo school, Ben Franklin Middle School. He has been hit, teased and even pushed in front of an oncoming bus.

“He has nightmares about kids bullying him,” Heinze said.

Heinze said Ben Franklin staff has been wonderful, but in areas such as locker rooms and during recess, he’s not protected.

Heinze said she has tried to address the parents of the bullies, but to no avail.

“No parent wants to believe their child is a bully,” she said.

Bullying has taken center stage across America with a rash of young suicides being blamed on school bullying in recent weeks. October is also National Bullying Prevention Month.

Forty-five states have passed comprehensive bullying laws, some of which require a no-tolerance policy for bullying, allowing students to be expelled if caught, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

North Dakota is one of only five states without such a law.

Rep. Ed Gruchalla, D-Fargo, has long been involved with Special Olympics, where special-needs children often report bullying.

He supports Heinze and said he hopes to author a bill in the next legislative session outlining a universal policy for North Dakota schools.

“The formative stages are here. It’s not a new issue,” Gruchalla said. “It’s been discussed in the past. Every time there is a real bad incident, it’s brought up, but then it kind of just goes away. It will keep coming up until something is done.”

Nancy Jordheim, assistant superintendent for the Fargo School District, said the district does have bullying policies in place, which can be found online at www.fargo.k12.nd.us.

Heinze wants more student involvement, such as hall monitors to help report bullying, and severe punishment implemented for students caught bullying. She is also lobbying for parent volunteers to monitor the hallways and property after school.

She also hopes to see such far-reaching steps as placing cameras in the lunchroom and hallways.

“Telling them (students being bullied) to ‘walk away’ or ‘go tell a teacher’ – it’s not helping the solution. Sometimes in fact, it makes it worse,” Heinze said. “I want to get the word out there. I want someone besides myself to protect these kids.”

Ben Franklin Principal John Nelson said bullying isn’t a black-and-white issue. A state law may be helpful, he said, but is not necessarily going to be the answer to end bullying.

“The devil is in the details. To me, I think everybody makes a mistake, and the important thing is that we learn from it,” Nelson said. “We need to work with kids so they understand how to deal with situations and how to handle themselves in different situations.”

“We need to teach both the bully and the victim how to react, how to behave and how to process the situation and make a decision,” he said. “How we react to the situation is often going to determine if it escalates or is handled appropriately. Sometimes it can be a learning process for everybody.”

Nelson said the school is working with students who bully other students, but the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act prevents administrators from telling parents how a child is being disciplined. He said that can frustrate parents of bullying victims.

Nelson said every disciplinary action is a learning experience and it’s important to find out why a child is bullying.

He said the school needs to work with the child and parents to address issues that may be causing bullying behavior.

“It doesn’t happen immediately, and that can be frustrating,” Nelson said.

Only in extreme cases, would a student be expelled from school for bullying, he said.

“A lot of it has to do with the diversity and people being tolerant of different views,” Nelson said. “It really comes down to getting families to work with us because it’s very difficult if you try to do it alone.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530