Bullying has become such a fixture of school life that most of us have ceased giving it any real attention. Bullies are seen as an inextricable part of the social fabric in schools, as common and unremarkable as any other social archetype, whether it be geeks, jocks or studious overachievers.

Adherence to this belief has allowed bullying to continue in schools for decades without excessive interference from school staff or parents. Getting bullied is thought of as a rite of passage, just another frustrating part of growing up.

Unfortunately, this viewpoint is grossly inaccurate.

Recent research has revealed the damaging and disruptive effects of bullying. A Finnish study found that individuals bullied at the age of 8 still showed victim-related pathology 20 years later. These symptoms included depression and anxiety and often resulted in suicide.

Clearly the effects of bullying last for much longer than was previously believed. Another study found that the perpetrators of lethal school violence were 2.6 times more likely than their victims to have previously been bullied.

Even more disturbing, a study by the U.S. Secret Service found that in two-thirds of school shootings, the attacker had been bullied. Most studies estimate the prevalence of bullying at a little over 30%, which is too high for comfort. If we wish to avoid the grisly consequences of bullying for our students, then it is imperative that we develop programs to address it.

As a graduate student in the USC School of Social Work, I have seen firsthand the damaging effects of bullying. I work as an intern at a public school where many of the students I see have been victimized by bullies. Decreased self-esteem, anxiety and depression are often seen in these children, many of whom begin to internalize the negative messages that bullies transmit to them.

Without proper intervention, these children may continue to experience psychological effects from bullying, perhaps for the rest of their lives. Violence and intimidation have no place in our schools; we need to act decisively in order to ensure that this problem is dealt with at a policy level.

Assembly Bill 1455 was proposed specifically to address the problem of bullying in schools. The bill grants principals and superintendents the authority to refer victims, witnesses and others affected by bullying to mental health services.

As the law currently stands, bullies can be referred to counseling as an alternative to being suspended, but this right does not extend to victims or witnesses of bullying.

Twenty-four states have a mental health component that covers witnesses of bullying as well as victims. It should be our goal to add California to that list.

AB 1455 has been passed by the Assembly and is making its way through the Senate. If this bill is passed, it would be a dramatic step forward for California schools. Victims and witnesses of bullying would finally be given the care and attention they deserve by mental health staff, including social workers and school psychologists.

By addressing these issues as they happen, school administrators can help minimize the effects of bullying. A comprehensive mental health policy for bullying is important to ensuring that our children don't carry the scars into adulthood.

EVAN MALKIEWICH lives in Costa Mesa and is a candidate for a master's degree in social work at USC.