Paul Coughlin of Medford is founder of The Protectors, an international organization that works to prevent bullying. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell

Ashland hazing incident puts spotlight on bullies

Paul Coughlin has harsh words for bullies: Stop it on the schoolyard or you may end up in a prison yard.

The Medford author and founder of a bully prevention program has been researching serial bullies for a decade and describes their behavior in schools and on sports fields, small towns and big cities to audiences around the U.S. and in his own community.

He says taunting and teasing can quickly escalate to criminal acts. With male bullies, he finds actions may turn into sexual assault.

Recently, the Ashland Police Department reported incidents of attempted sexual assaults at a summer football camp that has led to the arrest of a 17-year-old from the Rogue Valley.

Three Ashland High School football players have been implicated and charged with coercion in luring five teammates into a Linfield College dorm room in McMinnville. Two of the AHS players are facing charges of conspiracy to attempt to sexually penetrate with fingers younger players while players stood witness.

George Kramer, whose son is a member of the football team but was not implicated in the acts, said, "This was a terrible and sad event and I believe that AHS, the football team and all of us should do everything possible to make sure it doesn't happen again."

He continued: "Bullying, hazing and, of course, sexual intimidation should not be tolerated in any degree and we need to do whatever is necessary to assure that this sort of behavior does not escalate."

It is against Ashland School District policy for any type of hazing, harassment, intimidation, bullying or menacing to occur at any time at school or at a school-sponsored event.

Mediation Works has presented its Bullying Prevention and Bystander Awareness Program at Ashland and Talent middle schools, and the Jackson County Sexual Assault Response Team, Community Works and Ashland police have taught sexual assault prevention programs at Ashland Middle School and Ashland High School for three years.

A Community Works employee and others were asked to talk to the AHS football players soon after the alleged incidents took place last June at the football camp. More prevention classes are scheduled for this year.

Coughlin, author of "Raising Bullyproof Kids" and whose Freedom-From-Bullying programs ( are used around the world, is not involved in the AHS case, but he has worked over the years with local schools to identify and prevent aggressive behavior and abuse.

"As a community, there are so many misconceptions about bullying that it stops us from getting clarity and finding solutions," he said Monday in Ashland.

Coughlin, who has taught boys soccer for 18 years, including at St. Mary's School in Medford, said he once had to recognize that he had a bully on his sports team, "but I never spotted him. A brave parent had to point out the behavior to me."

Now he teaches coaches to watch for a ringleader who talks only loud enough for the weaker players to hear his or her threats, a once-smiling player who seems distraught and other patterns of bullying.

He said that parents often shrug off bullying as "kids being kids." Since the acts are intentionally committed outside of the view of teachers and coaches, and bystanders feel pressure not to tell, bullies are allowed to get away with their actions.

This, research shows, can lead to lifelong behavior — and perhaps time in prison — from getting pleasure and feeling powerful from watching weaker people suffer.

Victims are chosen, Coughlin explained, because they appear vulnerable and isolated. Bystanders often feel sympathy and empathy for the target, but his research finds that only 13 percent act to stop the bullying "even when they know it's wrong," he said.

Bystanders, he said, fear that if they act, they will be next. Or if they tell a teacher or coach, they will be labeled a snitch or tattletale.

After witnessing a classmate or teammate be bullied, passive bystanders often feel shame, guilt and a sense of cowardliness, Coughlin said.

"There is always a pivotal moment," Coughlin said. "When it is safe for them to do so, bystanders can rise up to defend the targets. Our children need to be expected to do the right thing and be taught to be a person of courage who understands justice and fairness."

His research shows that members of groups or sports teams are less likely to speak up since there is a sense of camaraderie. Yet these school leaders and athletes can be the most effective in diminishing bullying.

"Athletes set the moral or ethical thermometer in most youth-based groups," he said. "They are the rock stars, the alpha males and females, and are respected." He said they can be the first line of defense against bullies.

"No one wants to go up against the most popular people," he said.

He added that an "accidental bully" — as he calls someone who one time makes a rash decision — can make amends by apologizing to the victim.

"School districts that have faced bully issues can create something powerful out of something so sad," he said. "We can never get rid of bullying behavior, but we can greatly diminish it. That's the goal."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or

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