Thursday, April 7, 2005
Schools must take action to control bullying

By Dr. Anthony Policastro
Nanticoke Memorial Hospital

Recently, another high school in this country had to deal with the shooting deaths of some of its students. Stories like this make headlines. The main reason for that is that they are unusual. However, there is a much more common problem that happens every day in schools throughout the country. That is the issue of bullying. School bullies are common. About 10 percent of children in our schools are bullied on a regular basis. Only half of those children ever report it to anyone. Boys are more often the target than girls. Boys tend to be physically abused or have things taken from them. Girls tend to have gossip spread about them or face social isolation. Bullies tend to be aggressive in all situations. They do not only torment peers in school. They may be aggressive toward siblings. They may be aggressive toward parents. They may be aggressive toward teachers. Victims tend to be more insecure than the average child. They tend to be quiet. They tend to be physically smaller. They tend to be alone on the playground at school. They commonly will react to bullying by crying at school. Bullying occurs at times when there is diminished supervision. This may be lunchtime. It may be recess. It may be playground time. In actuality, the fewer the supervisors at playground time, the more likely there is to be bullying going on. It is not clear whether class size or school size makes a difference in the amount of bullying. Private versus public school does not make a difference. However, what is clear is that some schools have more bullying than others. The main reason seems to be that those schools do not look for it and do not punish it. When the bullies realize that they can get away with it, they continue. Bullying starts early in school. It is most common in the second grade and decreases over time. It often causes physical symptoms in the victim. These may include trouble sleeping. They may include feelings of unhappiness or sadness. These may include having stomachaches or headaches. They may even include a new onset of bedwetting in a child who has been dry. The most serious concern is one that was just reported last month in a medical journal. It showed that because many of these individuals have signs of depression by the time they get older, the incidence of suicide is higher in this group than the non-bullied group. While there certainly are other factors involved as well, this becomes a real concern. In the most recent incident in Minnesota, the individual took his own life after shooting the victims. His classmates previously had socially isolated him. That isolation is a form of generalized psychological bullying. While that may have been only one factor among many, it likely did not help things. Parents need to teach their children how to deal with bullies. The method most used is called “Walk-talk-squawk.” In this method there are three steps. The first is to walk (not run) away from the situation so the bullying does not continue. The second is to talk in a non-provocative manner and tell the bully that you are going to complain to someone about him. The third is to squawk to the teacher or parents about the incident. Then it is up to the school or parents to take it from there. What is clear is that unless there is action by the school, the bullies have the feeling that they can continue doing what they are doing. The message must be loud and clear to all students that this behavior will not be tolerated in that particular school. Just because something does not make headlines, does not mean that it does not injure children in some way. As parents and teachers and school administrators, we have a joint responsibility to look for and correct bullying in our schools.

Dr. Anthony Policastro is medical director at Nanticoke Memorial Hospital.
Mercury is dangerous liquid metal

By Donald S. Welsh
U.S. EPA Mid-Atlantic regional

Recent mercury spills at schools across the nation have created significant public health incidents. Although metallic mercury may look fun to play with, mercury can evaporate into a toxic, odorless, colorless gas when exposed to air. If inhaled or absorbed over time, mercury vapors can result in tremors, insomnia, headaches, and can damage the brain, central nervous system and other organs. Pure mercury is a liquid metal, sometimes referred to as quicksilver, used to make products like thermometers, switches and some light bulbs. Children, babies and pregnant women are especially at risk. In addition to posing health risks, these spills have closed schools, affected children’s homes and necessitated cleanups that cost state and local governments and school districts hundreds of thousands of dollars. In schools, mercury is found primarily in mercury-containing devices such as thermostats and in scientific laboratories. Some states have enacted legislation to remove mercury from schools. People can help reduce mercury incidents by purchasing mercury-free products and correctly disposing of products that contain mercury. The general public can clean up small mercury spills no greater than the amount contained in a thermometer from flat surfaces. For specific information about how to clean up a small spill, visit EPA’s Web site at and click on mercury. If you think your mercury spill to be greater than the amount in a thermometer, isolate the contaminated area and call your local or state health department or environmental agency. Other important guidelines are:
  • Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury. The vacuum will put mercury into the air and increase exposure. The vacuum will be contaminated and have to thrown away.
  • Never use a broom to clean up mercury. It will break the mercury into smaller droplets and spread them.
  • Never pour mercury down the drain.
  • Never wash mercury-contaminated items in a washing machine. It may contaminate the machine and pollute sewage.
  • And never walk around if your shoes might be contaminated with mercury. Contaminated clothing can also spread mercury around. Contact your local health department, municipal waste authority or your local fire department for proper disposal in accordance with local, state and federal laws.