Bullying: How big a problem is it in Southold?

Members of Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja in the scene showing Marcelo Lucero's loved ones reacting to the news of his murder.
KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Members of Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja in the scene showing Marcelo Lucero's loved ones reacting to the news of his murder.

Southold Town is getting proactive about dealing with bullying. Working with Stony Brook University’s School of Social Welfare, it has launched a survey to see how big a problem bullying is and to focus on solutions.

The survey is an effort to “get a snapshot” of how junior and senior high school students feel about one another and whether or not they feel safe interacting with their peers, teachers and other adults, said Dr. Carolyn Peabody, a professor at the School of Social Welfare and an Orient resident who is a member of the Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force.

“Our hope is for an honest response” from students, Supervisor Scott Russell said.

“It’s not a problem of the schools, but of the whole town,” said Dr. Peabody. The survey will be conducted in the schools as a means of getting at least a partial picture of the problem, Mr. Russell said. The estimated $2,000 cost is being financed largely with grant money Dr. Peabody obtained and support from the School of Social Welfare, along with some small printing costs being paid by participating schools.

The survey gets under way this week for those students who parents have signed consent forms.

Dr. Peabody worked with doctoral students at the School of Social Welfare to develop the survey, which takes about 20 minutes and will be administered to students in the Greenport and Mattituck-Cutchogue districts. “We really want to give the kids a voice,” she said. Southold has opted to use a shorter version with its students.

Bullying is a subject Mr. Russell and Dr. Peabody have been talking about together since the November 2008 murder of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue. Mr. Lucero was stabbed to death. Seven white teenagers stood trial on various charges in the case. While denying they intended to kill the 37-year-old Mr. Lucero, the youths admitted they had been on the prowl the night of the murder to beat up Latinos.

The play “What Killed Marcelo Lucero?” — conceived and directed by Long Island resident Margarita Espada and produced by Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja — is not about schoolyard bullying but it is about hatred, and groups using violence against targeted victims. The play made its way to Southold last summer.

The play and the facts behind it nagged at Mr. Russell and Dr. Peabody, both said during a recent interview at Southold Town Hall. Southold certainly hasn’t had any incidents that rise to the level of the Lucero killing but Mr. Russell said he didn’t want to ignore trends that could be festering here.

“The tone [of discourse] is uncivil,” said the supervisor’s deputy, Phillip Beltz.

“That’s a national trend,” Mr. Russell added.

“By not doing anything, you’re doing nothing” to improve the situation, Mr. Beltz said.

Mr. Beltz initially thought his work with the town’s Youth Bureau might provide a forum for revealing students’ attitudes and concerns. Ultimately, though, he and Mr. Russell decided they needed to get a handle on just how pervasive prejudice and bullying are in Southold by conducting a wider survey.

Among the catalysts were parents who told him, “We need your help and guidance,” Mr. Russell said.

The survey aims to identify how students are experiencing their lives in and around school, Dr. Peabody said. They’ll be asked questions about their personal experiences with discrimination and bullying; their relationships with their peers; and their observations of how other students are treated.

They’ll also be asked to assess how their teachers and administrators are responding to problems and how much trust they have in seeking help from school officials. It has taken a few months to get the survey rolling, including getting permission slips signed by parents whose children will be participating.

It’s not clear when results will be tabulated, Dr. Peabody said. The hope is they can be used to develop programs to address any problems here. “If we as a community come together, we can help everyone in the town,” Dr. Peabody said.

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