Hotline hopes to stop bullying

It takes place in classrooms and hallways, on playgrounds and over the Internet.

Bullying can make students afraid to go to school, too upset to sleep and, in some extreme cases, can lead to suicidal thoughts if they feel there is no one there to listen and help.

These are the kinds of examples Brenda Harding heard while looking for a new community-involvement project. She said she’d hear “the same story over and over again,” and decided to combat bullying.

On April 11, Harding launched a local Stop the Bully Hotline the result of more than two years of research and organization.

According to the American Psychological Association, 40 to 80 percent of school-age children experience bullying at some point, and a Kaiser Family Foundation and Children Now survey showed that more than 60 percent of students view bullying as a major problem.

Many said they worry most about being harassed while at school, rather than going to and from school, like while on the bus.

The goal, Harding said, is for hotline workers to contact either a superintendent or principal after a student calls in, and to provide administrators with report information. From there, hotline workers also bring together the victim’s and bully’s parents to work toward a solution.

“That sets us apart a little bit,” she said, adding that workers are looking for effective ways to prevent the bullying from continuing.

If it doesn’t, she said, the hotline has the ability to appoint an attorney for the victim.

“Because bullying is a form of harassment, which is illegal,” she said.

The hotline launch during standardized-testing time in schools came at an inopportune time, Harding said. Because there were also website issues, she said she’s decided to take a slow and steady approach to getting the word out about the resource.

In the meantime, Harding said the hotline has a Facebook account and Twitter handle, @ReportABully.

Within weeks of the launch, a group of students from across the state representing schools like Indiana University of Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania and York County’s Hanover High School gathered in Harrisburg to show support for the Pennsylvania Safe Schools Act, or PASS, anti-bullying legislation.

Pennsylvania is among a majority of states that have both policies and laws regarding bullying, according a U.S. Department of Health & Human Services website,

However, information from a 2011 U.S. Department of Education report shows that Pennsylvania law is incomplete or vague as to limiting the ability, especially of schools, to address bullying.

“Though most state laws communicate the intent to address bullying conduct in schools, not all state statutes contain clear legal prohibitions against bullying behavior,” the report said.

According to the report, seven states including Pennsylvania were “less explicit in communicating legal expectations and avoided concrete prohibiting statements.”

PASS has nearly 80 co-sponsors. If passed, it would define cyberbullying and create a mandatory reporting system for bullying. The bill also would address school violence and train educators to prevent harassment.

While the general assembly debates whether to address bullying, some local students said they may see improvements locally, thanks to the hotline.

Andy Schaner, 17, a Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School junior, said he never had much of a problem with bullies personally, thanks to a great group of friends, but thinks the hotline will help students who feel as though there is no one else to whom they can turn.

“The hotline is a third party group in the situation,” he said.

Schaner said he feels bullying is prevalent and a problem.

“It happens moreso on Facebook and Twitter and other social media accounts,” he said, and believes it will continue to be more prevalent online from now on.

Students using Facebook, for instance, can insult somebody on a whim, Schaner said, because “you don’t have to stand up and face that person” when online.

The hotline also will be working with local law enforcement. Harding said Altoona Police Chief Janice Freehling has been supportive of her efforts. Freehling was unavailable for comment.

Harding said she’s looking for local businesses to help sponsor the nonprofit hotline, and she hopes volunteers will come forward for training.

The No. 1 thing students should take away from this new system is that victims will have their voices heard, and those who harass them will not escape punishment.

“They’ll be held accountable for their actions,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.