OAKLAND — Youngsters are bullied because they are too short, too tall, too smart or from a different country.

They are harassed for the color of their skin, or something as uncontrollable as a limp or a stutter, a bullying expert said Thursday.

Most victims of bullying have their feelings hurt or their confidence shattered. But sometimes — like in the case of 7-year-old Zachary Cataldo — the outcome of schoolyard bullying is much, much worse.

The Oakland boy spent two days in the intensive care unit of Children's Hospital Oakland with a fractured skull after one relative said he was bullied at school. Zachary was released Wednesday night, his father, Anthony Cataldo, said earlier this week.

His after-school care provider went to pick him up at Piedmont Avenue Elementary in North Oakland on Monday afternoon when she found him lying on the ground, too dizzy to stand up, according to his aunt, Janine Cataldo. He had been slammed into a tree by a fifth-grader — a much older, bigger, stronger boy, she said.

The incident was the third violent attack on the boy and comes in the wake of a kick in the stomach earlier this year and the loss of four teeth in another incident last year.

The recent incident has riled up neighbors and parents around Piedmont Avenue Elementary, which state records show already has a high-rate of violence on campus.

"I'm horrified," said Katherine Falk, a 39-year-old mother who lives off Piedmont Avenue near the school. "I want to be able to send my toddler to public school when it's time but not if she's going to be in physical danger."

Neighbor Valerie Winemiller agreed.

"I'm really shocked that this is the third incident, that the child could lose four teeth," Winemiller said. "What kind of (school) intervention happened?"

A neighborhood group has called a meeting for 7:30 p.m. May 14 at Piedmont Gardens, 110 41st St., 11th floor, to discuss the incident and bullying in general.

Piedmont Avenue Principal Angela Haick did not return calls for comment Thursday, but Denise Saddler, the district administrator who oversees Piedmont Avenue Elementary School, said earlier this week that schools generally assign staff to "yard duty" for about 10 minutes before and after school, and that she is investigating the incident.

"That's something that we take very seriously," Saddler said. Every time such an incident occurs, she said, "We want to see if there's anything we can do differently."

Piedmont Avenue Elementary has one of the higher rates of violence-related suspensions in the Oakland Unified School District, according to a report from the California Department of Education for the 2006-07 school year.

The school, with 344 students, had 312 suspensions last year, 97 of which were for violent incidents, according to the CDE report. In comparison, Korematsu Discovery Academy in Oakland, with a student body of 328, had 34 violence-related suspensions.

Rick Phillips, a former teacher and principal for 20 years and the founder of the anti-bullying nonprofit, Community Matters in Sonoma County, said he's not surprised to see a 7-year-old violently hurt by an older boy.

"(Bullying) has been around for a long time but it's gotten younger, it's gotten meaner and it's gotten harder to identify because kids use a lot of pervasive ways, like posting hateful things on the Internet," Phillips said.

It's also extremely widespread.

Across the nation, about 160,000 children stay home from school every day because they fear how they will be treated at school, according to research from the National Association of School Psychologists.

Phillips said a physical or intellectual difference can incite bullying.

"Sometimes (bullying) has nothing to do with the kid," Phillips said. "Sometimes it's the perpetrators who are looking for someone to harass."

His nonprofit has a program called Safe School Ambassadors, which is running in 650 schools in 31 states, including 55 schools in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Two schools in Oakland recently joined the program, nonprofit officials said.

This week's incident involving Zachary could boost the number of Oakland schools involved in the program, Phillips said.

"I am going to reach out to (more) Oakland (schools) and Piedmont Avenue Elementary for sure," he said Thursday.

If there is interest in the program (www.safeschoolambassadors.org) it will mean training student leaders so they can intervene to stop bullying when adults aren't around.

"While adults make rules, it's the students who create the 'social norms' that either allow or don't allow (bullying) to go on," Phillips said.

What's going to happen next for Zachary is anyone's guess.

The boy's aunt earlier this week sent a letter to the district administrators about the problem and his father is threatening legal action, according to published reports. Anthony Cataldo was not immediately available for comment Thursday.

Cataldo is also angry about the earlier bullying and he said no one listened when he shared his concerns with the school principal earlier this year.

"That should be the safest place in the world for a child," he said earlier this week. "He's not afraid to go back to school, but I'm afraid for him."

Reach Kristin Bender at 510-208-6453 or kbender@bayareanewsgroup.com.

How to stop a bully
  • Don't assume that everything is OK at school just because your youngster says it is. Ask open-ended questions such as, "Tell me about your day" and "Tell me about your interactions with your friends."
  • Become a stronger advocate for your child. Learn about programs that are happening at school. What kind of bullying prevention program does the school have? Is it working? What else is on the horizon?
  • Encourage children to be anti-bullying advocates. If they see someone saying hurtful things, advise them to tell a parent, teacher or school staff person. Even mild teasing should be reported. A recent study shows that peers were present in 88 percent of childhood bullying episodes.
    Sources: Hawkins DL, Pepler DJ, Craig WM: "Naturalistic observations of peer interventions in bullying"; and Rick Phillips with Community Matters.