Oelwein student suicide prompts bullying discussion - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Oelwein student suicide prompts bullying discussion


The Oelwein School District is mourning the loss of a student, and his death has struck a nerve with many across eastern Iowa.

Dustin VanLaningham took his own life over the weekend.  Some students believe bullying may be to blame, but relatives insist that was only a small part of VanLaningham's troubles.

Students are also upset they've not been allowed to hold a vigil in his memory.  The district's superintendent says there's a time and place for that, but right now the focus is on allowing the school and community to grieve. 

"Anytime you lose a student, it's extremely difficult and under those conditions it makes it even more difficult for everyone. So many people go through a lot of stages of grief and that's what we're going through at this point," said Oelwein superintendent Steve Westerberg.

Regardless of whether the Oelwein student's death was a direct result of bullying,  phone calls, emails, and Facebook messages to KWWL say the situation shines a light on the bullying epidemic nationwide.

So is bullying really on the rise?  And where do students turn for help?

"Kids have always been mean.  That's just who they are.  They're growing up, and learning, and don't know the social boundaries.  Our job is to help them understand what the social boundaries are.  But it is not, in my opinion, any worse than what it was--I'll even say back in 1973 when I was in 5th grade," said Steve Kwikkel, the principal at Waverly-Shell Rock Middle School.

Bullying might not be worse, but how it happens has changed.  Social media allows hallway sneers to become posts accessible at any time and seen by hundreds online.  But Kwikkel argues the digital age has been a benefit to stopping bully behavior in its tracks.

"It gives students a platform of security, anonymity.  They can report something to any adult in the building.  We've had cases already this year, and a really important one last year, in which a student or students emailed the right adults and next thing you know, within literally minutes, we were on top of the situation, which was good for everybody," Kwikkel said.

Getting bystanders involved is another key to get bullies stopped.

"If there's somebody else that steps in and says, 'Hey, cool it! Knock it off!' It's shown that actually has more of an impact than the victim themselves standing up," said Matt Seward, Waverly-Shell Rock Middle School guidance counselor.

Counselors are constantly making classroom visits to talk about those issues.  That contributes to creating an environment where students feel comfortable coming to any adult when there's a problem.  And district officials say that's an important step that sometimes gets skipped.

"It's often the times we have not heard and the child goes home and they're telling their parents this.  The parents get agitated.  They don't see anything happening, so by the time it gets to us, they're going, 'Ah!'" said Kwikkel.

Security cameras are just another way schools like Waverly can keep an eye on student behavior, helping both confirm and debunk bullying, so it can be addressed.

If bullying becomes a serious enough issue, districts can refer students to counseling services outside school.  As for discipline, when bullying is confirmed, students can face anything from detention to suspension, and in rare cases, when needed, police are called to intervene.

School districts across the state have bullying policies and programs. Below are details from a few of those districts in eastern Iowa.

State of Iowa:

The state of Iowa has implemented a brand new reporting system for bullying. Because it has only recently been implemented, there are no hard figures yet for this school year. 


Cedar Rapids:

You will find multiple resources, district policies, and contacts related to anti-bullying and harassment at this link of our website:



Schools have an anti-bullying curriculum in place through district counselors.  Many buildings also include specific signage directing students about "safe people" to go to when there's a problem.

The Family and Children's Council in Waterloo also has a program in local schools targeted at sexual abuse prevention, but the message it carries also includes information on what students need to recognize as unacceptable behavior, distinguishing between something that is just bothersome, and something that is actually bullying or harassment.  The "Take Charge of Your Body" program reaches 7,500 students annually.

Cedar Falls:

There are specific initiatives in place targeting both bullying behavior and the response to it. Some of that information is available here: http://www.cedar-falls.k12.ia.us/health-safety/student-safety/bullying-prevention


According to the school district, no bullying forms have been filed this year so far, which is down from the previous two years at the same time in the year.

The Dubuque Community School District believes that the first step to bullying prevention is creating school environments that are caring, supportive and respectful. This is a primary focus throughout the year with a variety of programs.  Should a student encounter bullying, we encourage the first step to be to tell any adult in the building. That first contact will then follow-up with the appropriate building administrator and counselor to address the situation.

Iowa City:

In 2008, the Iowa City Community School District adopted the Steps to Respect Bullying Prevention Program to address bullying prevention on a building level.  This program was selected through a consensus of guidance counselors, parents, teachers, and administrators and is in the final phase of implementing the program district-wide.  Steps to Respect trains staff to recognize and address bullying and students learn how to make friends; recognize feelings; and recognize, refuse, and report bullying.  Steps to Respect compliments the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports approach adopted by the district .  A formal grievance process is in place for students who feel that they have been bullied based on protected personal characteristics in accordance with state law.

Data gathered through the Iowa Youth Survey for students in the Iowa City Community School District shows positive reports on school climate, as well as areas to continue to work.

The data showed for the 2011-2012 school year showed that students self-reported:

  • A 5% increase in the percentage of students who reported feeling safe at school between 2010 and 2011 (91%-96%)
  • A 2% increase in being involved in a physical fight on school property (from 11% to 13%) between 2010 and 2011, which is down from 15% in 2009.
  • A 5% increase in being called names, made fun of, or teased in a hurtful way from 33% to 38% between 2010 and 2011, which is a decrease from 43% in 2009.
  • An increase of 9% from 22% to 31% in being left out of things on purpose, excluded from a group of friends, or completely ignored, which is under the 33% reported in 2009.





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