When bullying reaches a criminal level, a new program in Nassau County aims to keep kids out of court and instill a better understanding of how much bullying hurts.
The Nassau County Probation Department says 10 to 20 cases a year involve criminal charges, from aggravated harassment to assault to sexual abuse, against juveniles accused of offenses that have bullying at their roots.
The new program will give accused bullies a chance to avoid court -- and have their case closed without a record after 60 days -- if they attend a session of videos and discussions intended to teach empathy for victims.
The juvenile unit routinely assesses offenders younger than 16 to see if their cases can be closed, and may instead impose community service, counseling or other alternatives.
A growing trend
Bullying is involved in a fraction of the 600 juvenile cases the department handles annually. Still, those cases represent a trend that's been growing over the last few years. "They're on the radar now," said department Acting Director John Fowle.
Until now, though, there was "nothing out there for the bully offender," said Laura Turner, supervisor of the department's intake unit who gathered the material with her staff for the new program and will supervise some sessions. She scoured the Internet, MTV's anti-bullying material and other resources to come up with material. The department is consulting with educators at Adelphi University.
The first session, for three teenagers accompanied by their parents, is planned for May 2, said Andrew Eichhorn, assistant deputy director of the Probation Department's family division. The idea is to help offenders early on, and see who needs more treatment rather than steer everyone into family court, he said.
"We'll sit down and evaluate it, and fine-tune it as we go along to see what has the greatest impact on the participants," Eichhorn said. "I'm OK if we end up a year from now with a program that works that's entirely different than what we thought it would be. At some point, you just have to jump in and do it."
The idea for the program emerged last year from a case in which department officials thought charges against a teen might be inappropriate.
The high school boy had been charged with a sex offense for grabbing another boy's breast.
"Is this a sex offender? What is he?" Eichhorn thought. "I said, 'He's a bully.' "
While the Probation Department had specialists to deal with juvenile sex offenders, that wasn't where Eichhorn thought this boy should be.
"That's when we started to ask, where do we put this kid?" he said. "We need a program for a bully."
The first three teenagers in the new anti-bullying program, already supervised by probation as juvenile delinquents for offenses that "jumped out at us as the real-deal, classic bullying behaviors," will see material showing the impact of bullying on victims, Fowle said.
"We keep coming to that point, we know we have to look internally into the bully himself and why he's doing this, and do it in a short time," said Senior Probation Officer Melody Grant. If we can get them to the right place before they go to a judge and become part of the system, and do it within 60 days, the better off for the kids."
Meanwhile, probation officers like Grant are doing what they can: closing Facebook accounts and having accused bullies pledge not to cyberbully, requiring them to watch videos or do a book report on a book on bullying. But the department wants to make sure that anything it does to treat accused bullies has the intended effect. "For very good reason we're moving slowly because we don't understand the environment as well as we need to," Fowle said.
Not all bullying cases that come to the Probation Department are clear-cut, however. In at least a few cases, the probation officers said, the offender charged with assault was, in fact, a victim of bullying who finally retaliated.