CHESAPEAKE - A nightmarish bus ride home from school is still fresh in nine-year-old Brenna's mind.
"A bunch of kids jumped on me and were pulling my hair. They punched my of one friends in the stomach," she said. "They slapped my face and it would burn a little."
Brenna attends Camelot Elementary School in Chesapeake. She says the kids who attacked her were in the second, third, fourth and fifth grades.
There are calls for schools to get tougher on bullying. One Virginia lawmaker unsuccessfully pushed for this type of bullying to be on par with assault. It could keep the child out of school for a prolonged period of time, enough to hold him or her back a grade.
While many may agree stronger penalties like expulsion and a mark on one's legal record - no matter how young the child - might get more parents' attention, some educators urge caution.
"We have to be very clear that we clearly understand what bullying looks like without just adding a penalty to it," said Bernette Brock, principal of Suburban Park Elementary School in Norfolk.
Brock says the biggest complaints at her school are with teasing and joking. But "more middle and high school behaviors are starting to manifest themselves at the elementary level," Brock said.
And with painful results.
Last month, an eight-year-old girl in Baltimore tried to kill herself by jumping from her second-floor classroom window.
Last year, an 11-year-old boy in Massachusetts committed suicide. Constant teasing and bullying was to blame.
According to the Attorney General's office, bullying isn't specifically defined in state code; however, the acts that are most often associated with bullying are criminal offenses. Those include threat, harassment, extortion, assault and battery, robbery and hazing.
State law does require local school boards to beef up anti-bullying and anti-cyber bullying programs and education. Teachers in Hampton Roads are getting training on how to handle bullies. Bullying information also is included in the "Code of Student Conduct" that each child takes home at the beginning of the school year.
Speaking of home, Brenna's mother says schools can't handle bullying alone.
"I think a lot of it goes down to parenting skills," Amanda Williams said.
And coping skills at delicate ages. Brenna says she's okay on the bus now because she and her friend now sit close to Miss Melissa, the bus driver.
Chesapeake Public Schools officials say the principal talked to the children involved in the incident and took appropriate disciplinary action.
In Suffolk, for example, bullying is addressed with a specific SOL objective in its Family Life Curriculum in Grade 1 and 4, according to Kevin L. Alston, assistant superintendent. Guidance counselors and health teachers discuss bullying and cyber-bullying during classroom sessions throughout the year and as needed.
Newport News Schools has several programs and initiatives targeted at elementary and middle school students regarding bullying, self-esteem, and making the right decisions. Included are Al’s Pals to help young children develop social skills, self-control, problem-solving abilities, and healthy coping, and LifeSkills Training.
Norfolk Schools says character education programs at the elementary school level work with individuals and small groups to discuss such issues.
SIGNS OF BULLYING: (US Dept. of Health/Human Srvcs.)
-Comes home with torn, damaged, or missing pieces of clothing, books, or other belongings
-Unexplained cuts, bruises, and scratches
-Few, if any friends, with whom he or she spends time;
-Seems afraid of going to school, walking to and from school, riding the school bus, or taking part in organized activities with peers (such as clubs)
-Takes a long, "illogical" route when walking to or from school
-Lost interest in school work or suddenly begins to do poorly in school
-Appears sad, moody, teary, or depressed when he/she comes home
-Complains frequently of headaches, stomachaches,or other physical ailments
-Has trouble sleeping or has frequent bad dreams loss of appetite
-Appears anxious and suffers from low self-esteem