It’s about that time of year again. Sending a child back to school takes on a completely new meaning these days. Most parents of school-aged children worry about the things their kids may face as they enter an environment they have very little control over.

Throughout the school year our WFAA Facebook messages are flooded, sadly, with messages from concerned parents about things that have happened to their child during their school day. One of the things we are asked about constantly is bullying. We even did a Facebook Live asking parents what they’re concerned about as the school year starts once again and bullying was top of mind.

Through laws and model policies, states refer to bullying in different ways. Some states have laws, some only have a policy and others have adopted both. Texas has adopted law.

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photo: stopbullying.gov

While there is no federal law that specifically applies to bullying, in some instances when bullying is based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion, it overlaps with harassment and schools are legally obligated to address it. In those cases, there is a formal complaint process through the Office for Civil Rights under the U.S. Department of Education.

WFAA spoke with Dr. Kathryn (Katey) Gray, associate principal at Heritage High School from Frisco ISD to talk about the process of reporting bullying and/or cyberbullying in schools as well as Roshini Kumar, a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and Clinical Therapist at Children's Health to understand how to work through emotions associated with bullying.

Bullying vs. Harassment

Bullying and harassment are often used interchangeably when talking about hurtful or harmful behavior. Though the behavior could look and feel the same, there are important differences when it comes to the definition in laws and protection. The following information is from Pacer on how to tell the difference between the two.

Bullying is defined as hurtful, harmful and humiliating behavior physically or emotionally. Typically there is an “imbalance of power.” This means the student demonstrating the bullying behavior has more power; this can be physically, socially, or emotionally (for example, a higher social status, physically larger, or emotionally intimidating).

The definition of harassment says this behavior is similar by its unwanted and hurtful actions but it can include unwelcome conduct such as verbal abuse, graphic or written statements, threats, physical assault, or other conduct that is threatening or humiliating, but the negative behavior is based on a student’s race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin.

Cyberbullying unpacked

With secret apps, social media, games and forums almost everywhere you look, the digital space lends itself to be a potential bullying zone. According to stopbulling.gov, cyberbullying is defined as sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else. It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else causing embarrassment or humiliation. Some cyberbullying can cross the line into unlawful or criminal behavior.

In May of 2017, the Texas House of Representatives voted 130-11 to pass Senate Bill 179 which is known as David's Law. The bill is named after David Molak, a 16-year old from the San Antonio area who committed suicide after months of relentless cyberbullying.

Under David's Law, cyberbullying that leads to injury or suicide of a minor becomes misdemeanor. Courts can reveal who the bullies are and public schools have to report the bullying and intervene.

RELATED: Texas House passes anti-cyber bullying bill

Signs of bullying, cyberbullying

Kumar says having open dialogue as much as possible helps foster those relationships between parents and children. As parents, really monitoring screen time and having electronic usage in an open space also helps creates a way for parents to be involved in what their kids are doing.

She encourages her patients to practice the STAR method against bullying:

  • STanding up for yourself and others
  • Asking for help: Who are specific adults you can go to for help
  • Respecting others

Kumar says some signs that a child is being bullied could be any of the following:

  • Grades decline
  • Isolating behavior
  • Excitement ceases
  • Loss of interest in the activities they used to enjoy
  • Destroyed clothing
  • Self- destructive behaviors

"We see sometimes, especially within the first six weeks there can be a mood decline, work starts to build up, things start to get a little bit stressful, peer interactions can be kind of intense," Kumar said.

She says the breakfast table or dinner table can be great places to check-in on mood and talk about what happened in each others' lives that day.

How to report bullying, cyberbullying

Every school district has a different policy on how to handle bullying and cyberbullying behavior. Some districts have a hotline you can call to report the behavior anonymously, others have apps specially designed for this and some just encourage finding a teacher, coach or administrator you trust to report it. Check with your school on their safety and security policy to understand what options are available to you.

What can a student do if they are being bullied?

Frisco ISD has a an app they've been using called the STOPit app. This allows two way communication between students and school administrators. If a student feels they are being bullied this app allows them to report the behavior anytime, anywhere. Once they fill out the information needed in the report a school administrator can then start a line of communication to find out more and how to handle the situation.

Not every school district has an app like this where students have a direct line of communication to their administrators, but other districts have anonymous tip lines or programs set up where your student can connect with an adult at the school.

Dr. Gray says being that their number one priority is keeping their kids safe, they can't act on these behavioral incidents if they don't know they're going on. No matter the district or school, that holds true across districts.

"The more things we are aware of, the more we can intervene and the faster too," she said.

What can a parent do if their child is being bullied?

Dr. Gray said when it comes to school safety there are two things administrators focus on primarily. Awareness and timeliness.

Once they're aware of what's going on, they will quickly work to make sure those involved are safe and if anyone is in immediate danger, they'll address that situation first.

"Once everything is safe and secure then our communication to parents happens," Gray said. "On the receiving end, it can be frustrating but just know that we may be working on things behind the scenes."

Dr. Gray says every situation is different and will yield a different response from the school. If a student is directly involved, it will be a priority to address the situation. If they are on the peripherals of an incident they'll work on securing all parts before intervening with all parties, and that includes parent communication.

"If we’re on the phone communicating and we haven’t gotten all the facts, we’re not working on our safety and doing the right thing at the right time," she said. "Sometimes there will be a delay in communication."

RELATED: Cyberbullying: What your kids may not be telling you

Why don't kids ask for help?

It's important to note that while these are all great resources to report the harmful, unwanted behavior, there may instances where kids or teens don't turn to adults at all. Statistics from the 2012 Indicators of School Crime and Safety show that an adult was notified in less than half (40%) of bullying incidents. According to stopbullying.gov, these are some of the reasons the behavior goes unreported:

  • Bullying can make a child feel helpless. Kids may want to handle it on their own to feel in control again. They may fear being seen as weak or a tattletale
  • Kids may fear backlash from the kid who bullied them
  • Bullying can be a humiliating experience. Kids may not want adults to know what is being said about them, whether true or false. They may also fear that adults will judge them or punish them for being weak
  • Kids who are bullied may already feel socially isolated. They may feel like no one cares or could understand
  • Kids may fear being rejected by their peers. Friends can help protect kids from bullying, and kids can fear losing this support