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South Hills

Sharpsburg's anti-bullying law modeled after Brentwood version

| Friday, Feb. 23, 2018, 11:00 p.m.

Sharpsburg police Officer Brian Hoebel sees the effects of bullying every day in the community of 3,400.

As the juvenile officer, he says the aim is to help — rather than merely punish — children and teens who bully others and make other poor choices. That's why he describes the town's new anti-bullying ordinance as “another tool in the toolbox to help keep children of this community safe.”

“It's a way to figure out what might be happening with the child accused of perpetuating the bullying behavior,” he said.

Council in January adopted an ordinance designed to hold parents and guardians more accountable if their child or teen repeatedly harasses their peers. It's one of a flurry of anti-bully laws, with a slightly different take: Punishing the parents, not just the kids. Parents could be fined up to $600 if the behavior continues.

While states including Pennsylvania have laws aimed to deter bullying behavior, far fewer communities have local rules. Sharpsburg's ordinance is modeled after one in Brentwood, where parents or guardians also could be fined up to $600.

But police Chief Adam Zeppuhar said he does not believe that Brentwood has cited anyone under the 2014 ordinance.

“Fortunately, we've not had any instances where we've gotten to that point. A lot of times we can resolve it (other ways),” he said. “Bullying is an issue that unfortunately has gone on forever, and in this day and age, there are consequences. You have situations where there could be underlying mental health issues, and it could lead to unexpected or unwanted behavior.

“But it (bullying) shouldn't be tolerated. It should be addressed.”

About 20 percent of students ages 12 to 18 surveyed nationwide reported being bullied, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2014-15 school year.

The most common types of bullying were being made fun of or being the subject of rumors, followed by being pushed or purposely excluded from activities.

Pennsylvania requires public school districts to have an anti-bullying policy and an anti-hazing policy that covers not just students but anyone who has contact with a student. A state law passed in 2015 also makes cyberbullying a third-degree misdemeanor.

But Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D., a Florida-based researcher, author, and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, said kids aren't deterred by outlawing specific behaviors.

“The vast majority of times they act based upon their emotions being inflamed, when they should really take a deep breath and walk away,” said Hinduja, also a professor at Florida Atlantic University. “People just go ahead and act, and they often do this under the guise of thinking they are invisible and invincible.”

Hinduja spoke to parents at Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel in January in an event open to the public. He offered ways for students to handle bullying behaviors and techniques for the schools to improve the overall climate — an approach he says that is more effective.

“Encouraging the youth to be the agents of change, empowering them to work with fellow student leaders, to say, ‘how can we shift the culture,' is what it's going to take,” he said.

In Sharpsburg, Mayor Matthew Rudzki, who in January was sworn in, pressed for the legislation and said he plans to take additional steps to reduce bullying.

Rudzki added that he was “prompted to action because of the terrible reports we encounter daily on social media and in the news about the tragic toll bullying can take in individuals, families and communities.” Legislation is just one way the issue can be addressed, he added.

Hoebel said it takes everyone working together, especially because some types of bullying are more difficult to detect than others.

“Mental abuse is among the most difficult to document because you can't see it,” Hoebel said. “But it can be really devastating.”

Kimberly Palmiero is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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