– After listening to a small group of sixth-graders talk about times they felt they were bullied, 12th-grader Dalton Dodge offered one closing piece of advice:

"The only way bullying is going to stop is if you guys stand up for each other," the East High School student said to Prairie Winds Middle School students Friday.

Dodge and other members of the Project for Teens mentoring group encouraged their younger peers to be "upstanders" instead of bystanders when they witness bullying.

Bullying rates have not changed substantially over the last three years, according to recently released results of the Minnesota Student Survey.

Between roughly two-thirds and one-third of area students said they had been bullied in the prior month, depending on the school district and the grade level.

Given once every three years to the majority of Minnesota students in four grades, the anonymous survey asks a wide variety of questions about adolescents' well-being, including how often and why they have been bullied.

Across Minnesota, bullying decreases in pervasiveness as students age. Among fifth-graders, 60% reported being bullied at least once in the month prior to taking the survey last spring. By 11th grade, the number drops to 40%.

Mankato Area Public Schools students reported the lowest rates of bullying in the region and Maple River had the highest.

Bullying evolves

While pushing is still happening on the playground and teasing is still occurring on the bus, Project for Teens coordinator Kate Cox says bullying has evolved from what many parents remember of their school days.

"The bullying now is done so passive aggressively," she said.

And much of it happens online, said Cox, who worked as a youth therapist and clinical social worker before leading Project for Teens full time.

Adolescents as young as upper elementary school are using social media, texts, messaging apps and even video games to disparage and spread rumors, Cox said she hears from the youths with whom she works at area schools.

Perhaps even more frequently, youths are using those platforms to exclude peers from activities and conversations. And that can be even "more impactful than if someone came up and punched you in the gut," Cox said.

In one of Project For Teens' role-playing scenarios with sixth-graders, a group of girls take a photo of themselves at the WOW!Zone. Some of the girls want to share it online with a classmate whom they did not invite so she would know she was being excluded. But other girls, who are "upstanders" to bullying, convince their friends to instead post the photo with an invitation to the girl who was left out to join them.

More Mankato students reported being excluded than reported being cyberbullied on the Student Survey. Nearly 36% of fifth-graders, 25% of eighth-graders and 18% of 11th-graders recalled being excluded at least once in the past month. Over the same time period, 16% of fifth-graders, 13% of eighth-graders and 11% of 11th-graders said they had been bullied online or via text.

Gender gap

At all ages, girls are more likely to say they have been bullied. Across Minnesota, 61% of eighth-grade girls and 48% of 11th-grade girls said they had been bullied in the last month, compared to 47% of eighth-grade boys and 32% of 11th-grade boys.

The gap is a little wider in Mankato Area Public Schools, where 50% of girls and 34% of boys in eighth grade reported recent bullying and in 11th grade it was 45% of girls and 23% of boys.

Cox said the gap could be at least in part because girls tend to remember bullying incidents better. "They hold grudges longer," she said. West High School social worker Molly Fox said it might just because girls are less reluctant to admit they are being bullied.

Parents speak

The Mankato Free Press invited local people to share their experiences with bullying on its Facebook page and received more than 170 responses.

Many commenters believed area schools don't do enough in response to bullying.

"I believe they let kids get away with a lot in school," wrote Misty Ritchie of Mankato. "My son is in third grade ... and the same kids have picked on him and all they do is talk with the other kids."

Mariah Meadows of Mankato said her 7-year-old was repeatedly bullied by a classmate last year and it did not stop after both children met together with a counselor.

"Schools say they don't tolerate bullying, (but) in my eyes and what my daughter went through for as long as she did, it seems it was just brushed under the rug," she wrote.

Other respondents praised how schools address bullying.

"Based on our experience at Rosa Parks (Elementary School), the school does a good job talking to the kids on a routine basis on topics of inclusion and being a good friend," Jenny Weckwerth of Mankato wrote.

"I do believe most of the schools do their best to prevent bullying but they can only do so much," Kacie Stevensen of Nicollet, Minn., wrote. "No teachers want children to bully. Teachers can't be everywhere at once watching all kids."

Many others said parents need to be part of the solution.

"It's not always the kids' fault. We all need to work together to fix this problem instead of pointing fingers at the just the kids," wrote Travis Theis-Griggs, a Mankato area school bus driver.

"It takes both staff in the school and parents outside of school," Stephanie Walters of Mankato wrote. "Parents need to be more involved, listen and pay attention to what's going on. Everyone needs to be proactive instead of reactive."

Kate Finch of Mankato wrote about how she responded when her son would come home from preschool in tears.

"I can't stop other children from bullying my kid, but I can do my best to give him tools to feel OK even if someone is unkind," she wrote. "And I can teach him how to make sure he's not a bully either. We've made it a regular topic that is discussed regularly."

School response

How the Mankato Area Public School District responds to each reported bullying incident is unique to each situation, said Eric Hudspith, the district's director of human resources and organizational development.

"Our policy allows us to be discretionary and support students based on the needs they have," he said.

A response known as restorative circles was introduced in the district's high schools five years ago and has expanded into other schools.

"It's a process of facilitating communication in the form of a circle, providing everyone an opportunity to speak and respecting each other's time to speak," said Marti Sevick, the district's director of teaching and learning.

Fox said a school social worker, counselor or assistant principal usually first meets with each of the parties involved individually and then brings them together for a guided conversation. In an era when misinformation is often spread via social media, Fox said open communication can be the key to resolving a conflict.

The same questions are asked at every circle: What happened? What were you thinking? What are you thinking now? Who has been affected? What do you need to do to make things right?

Each circle ends with each participant making a pledge to take at least one rectifying action, Fox said. Hudspith said the restorative circles don't always mean students escape without a more traditional form of punishment.

"Do we have some clear and concrete consequences at times? Absolutely we do," he said. "We do have some students who need to have some consequences at times when behaviors merit that."

Educators are not allowed by law to share information about how a student is disciplined with the parents of other children involved in an incident or with any other members of the public. A few commenters on The Free Press query suggested this may be contributing to some parents' perception the district does not adequately respond to bullying.

In the Maple River Public School District, Superintendent Dan Anderson said their work to reduce bullying has included adding social workers and banning cellphones at the middle school.

The district added two social worker positions and now has one at each school.

"Already we are seeing a great benefit to identifying and addressing the issues our students are dealing with at school and at home," Anderson said.

This fall the district added special lockers in which middle school students must lock up their cellphones for the full school day.

"In just the first four months there has been an astounding improvement in the environment of the entire school," Anderson said.

Administrators at Mankato Area Public Schools say the district has a number of programs that aim to prevent bullying, and more broadly, to promote a positive school climate and students' social-emotional growth.

Every school in the district uses the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports framework, said Scott Hare, the district's director of student support services. Often known as PBIS, the program sets student behavior expectations and provides interventions for students who aren't meeting expectations.

Elementary schools also use the Second Step social-emotional curriculum, which aims to help students develop empathy, manage their emotions, improve problem-solving and build learning skills.

Some of the district's schools also incorporate other social-emotional programs into their day. "We recognize that every building has its own climate," Hudspith said.

Peer education

Project for Teens visits every sixth-grader at five area middle schools to talk about bullying. They act out instances of bullying that are inspired by the real-life experiences of the volunteer high school students. They then role-play how the interaction might have gone differently if someone had stepped in to prevent or stop the bullying behavior.

"That took a lot of courage to stand up in front of everyone and say that was the wrong thing to do," East High School junior Eli Olson said after one skit.

"That shows the power of being an upstander," Dodge said after another scenario. "It only took one person to say something."

After the skits, the high school volunteers gather their younger peers into small groups for more discussion.

Olson and East High School senior Mikayla Stanley said they hope their message is more powerful coming from peers.

"I remember they had an impact on me," Olson recalled of the Project for Teens visits he experienced in middle school. "I saw them as role models."