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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Keep Bullying on the Front Burner

Dr. Allen Mendler

Author, speaker, educator

Sadly, it seems that terrible tragedy needs to keep striking in order for bullying to retain its status as worthy of serious efforts to eliminate it. The latest incident involves 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick's leap to her death in response to persistent cyber-bullying, and the subsequent arrest of two juvenile female honor students. While all this attention spotlights the serious consequences of this stubborn issue, schools and parents must be equally persistent in providing constant reminders of the dangerous and damaging impact caused by hurtful words, threats and actions when horrors like this aren't center stage.

A Horrifying Confession

One of my best childhood friends, now 63 years old, recently sent me the following letter:

My story begins when I was around 14 years old. My sister had a friend who she had a falling out with, so [the friend] told her three brothers that I made some anti-Christian comments, and they tracked me down one afternoon and beat me senseless. My parents knew their parents who were also longtime locals and tried to have amends made between us with a meeting in my grandmother's house. They had us all shake hands. The next day they surrounded me at the local hangout and hurled insults. My next several years were spent hiding when I saw them coming or staying inside when I could. There were several more incidents of verbal and physical torment which led to bed-wetting, nervous tics and stuttering. My dad found a rope with a noose in the basement and he saved me at that point, as I was this close to a drastic measure. But it was an omen for my adult plans. With my newfound adult affluence, I hired a private detective who located all three brothers and the sister. My plan was simple -- to have them killed with me present, and I had the doer all lined up. But when my mother got cancer and I visited her one day, she actually sensed the darkness in me and we talked, and I told her all about it. Thankfully, I didn't kill myself or them. But to this day, that entire episode haunts me.

As you might expect, I was blown away to read of this incident and its long-term scarring of a childhood friend. It haunts me to think that there must have been many days we were hanging out while he silently lived with this terror. People like my friend need to be encouraged to tell their stories to the kids in our classrooms. We need to keep the issue front and center so that all can be sensitized to the long-term pain of taunts, threats and trauma -- before the next Rebecca Sedwick takes her life.

Anti-Bullying Initiatives

Vigilance on the part of parents and educators can help, but that alone cannot defeat bullying. The main solution lies with kids, not adults. They need to be empowered to take action. I just wonder if Rebecca's outcome would have been entirely different if her friends, acquaintances or even just kids with decent hearts who'd read these negative online comments had stepped forward to counter them with positive comments about her. Did anyone express online outrage at the verbal brutality? How many might have wanted to but were themselves afraid of peer ostracism if they did?

I have observed three school-wide anti-bullying initiatives with staying power that emphasize what students can do to tackle this nasty problem.

1. Schoolwide Themes

In collaboration with students, identify anti-bullying themes and then create daily, weekly and/or monthly activities to support these themes. Examples include "performing acts of kindness," "making our school cool for all" and "what to do if you see someone being bullied online." If the latter theme had been identified and supported at Rebecca's school, perhaps an online bystander could have felt encouraged to contact at least six of their online friends so that all could simultaneously counter the horrible comments with a show of support.

2. Support Groups

Encourage students to create anti-bullying support groups. Paradise Williams, a 17-year-old in Rochester, New York was hospitalized following a suicide attempt. She had been bullied about her weight for years and talked to nobody about it, instead hiding her pain until it overwhelmed her. Following her hospital stay, she made a video about bullying with flash cards and posted it on YouTube. Fellow students started approaching her in the halls with hugs instead of put-downs as they relayed their own stories of being bullied. Realizing the need, Paradise formed a support group at her high school where fellow students talk about issues bothering them. Most members come by word of mouth while others are referred by teachers or guidance counselors. It is likely that most schools can successfully emulate Paradise's idea. All it takes is adult guidance in collaboration with an organized student group, like student council, to get things started.

3. Curriculum

Make anti-bullying part of the curriculum. Defeating bullying will take relentless effort. It takes a daily commitment. It must become a standard part of every school curriculum, visited as regularly as reading and math. Some subjects can more easily integrate content with the topic of bullying. Many of the darkest hours in American history are rooted in bullying. Virtually every ethnic group that settled in America has encountered it. Religious intolerance was a primary factor in colonizing America. Native Americans were forced to leave their homelands by a government more powerful than theirs. African-Americans were at the bottom of the hierarchy, as they could legally be enslaved even to Native Americans. Books such as Robert Lipsyte's One Fat Summer, Ziata Filipovic's Zlata's Diary and Marcella Pixley's Freak are but a few of many literary possibilities. One need only do an Internet search for "novels on bullying" to find texts that integrate well with the issue.

Please add your own ideas and approaches in the comments section below.

Comments (11)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Katie - CLC Network's picture
Katie - CLC Network
Marketing Communications Manager at CLC Network

Important signs parents, teachers and students should watch for are:
1) Changes in eating or relational habits
2) Plummeting school performance
3) Personal property getting "lost"

Helping members of the school community identify the signs of bullying can help them recognize a person in need.

Crystal Fitzgerald's picture

I can relate to this blog, I was bullied when I was in elementary school, and it wasn't a good feeling at all. By being bullied cause my self-esteem to grow low and made me be very aware of everything I did. Please parent be involved in your kids life, and know how they are doing in school because kids are mean.

Teresa's picture
Teresa
Assistant Professor Prairie View A&M University

Crystal, You are an outstanding student and I know you will be a fantastic teacher. You are very thoughtful and your contributions in the classroom are always appreciated. I did not know about your experiences of being bullied. Thank you for sharing.

Dawn Long's picture

I believe that children learn bullying in the home. I would hope that we could start to intervene before it continues to push children to suicide, like the young lady before.

Elpidia Lopez's picture
Elpidia Lopez
Parent of a 6 year old and a 8 month old in Los Angeles

This article speaks the truth. Schools need to enforce the anti-bullying Initiatives that have been proposed. The school that my daughter goes to has recently sent out a letter to all parents in Kindergarten because some of the teachers have been complaining that some of the students are being too aggressive with fellow classmates or other students in Kindergarten. The letter clearly stated that the first time that the student is caught they will get a warning and letter will be sent home to notify the parents. The second time this happens the students and the parents will have a meeting with the principle and the student will get suspended. I thought that this was a good idea because it saddens me to hear when such young children commit suicide because someone is bullying them. I believe that the most important issue here is to teach students how to stop bullies and to make parents aware that they might be teaching their child to be a bully.

Dr. Allen Mendler's picture
Dr. Allen Mendler
Author, speaker, educator
Blogger

Crystal,

Thanks for your comment and so happy to read Teresa's comments about you. I know you will be sensitive to kids who have been victimized. Your challenge will be to use your experiences to get the bully to make better choices. Try to stay calm so you can teach the bully better ways to express his need to be in control.

Kori Winker's picture
Kori Winker
AMAZE Community Partnerships Coordinator

I am the Community Partnerships Coordinator for a nonprofit called AMAZE.
AMAZE creates award winning educational programs to prevent bullying and end bias behaviors in younger children. We start with Diversity & inclusion training for teachers and then teach them to use those newly acquired skills to help young children to learn to understand differences, stand up for themselves and others, and recognize that they are not alone. AMAZE programs combine quality children's literature and anti bias lesson plans to create the safety and belonging every student deserves.
If preventing bias bullying isn't a school priority;when will it be?
Partner with AMAZE to help create schools in which all students feel safe, welcomed, engaged, and ready to learn!
Visit our website at www.amazeworks.org
*Star of State Children's Defense Fund * PFLAG Outstanding Organization 2012 * Mission Award MN Council of Non Profits

Rachel M.'s picture

This is so unbelievably true because I can relate myself. When I was in grade school I was bullied for at least 3 years and it was a heartbreaking thing to go through. It broke my self-esteem down piece-by-piece and made me feel like everyone around me was judging me or had something negative to say. Without my family I would have never gotten through it. It is very important to make sure your parents know what is going on and to tell someone what is happening if you ever experience bullying. It could save your life.

Lanelle's picture
Lanelle
Single mom of one little boy

I agree there is still so much that can be done around this issue. In junior high school I had to endure the bullying on a daily basis for several years. It followed me into high school until I turned to drugs and alcohol. Thirty-eight years later I hate that I still see it happening in my son's school now. It is definitely less then what I endured as a child but it is still there. I see it on the news all the time and my son comes home from school with stories of a select few who continue to bully him and other kids. I truly believe it starts at home. I think having anti-bullying campaigns in the school is great but it does no good when the parents and teachers are not fully on board. Children learn to bully at home. I am convinced of this. I am lucky that I have wonderful communication with my son and we talk about the differences of other people and how to be open and tolerant to them and their differences. We talk about including people regardless of how "dorky" they are (in the words of an 8-year-old). I talk to him about empathy, using his voice and not being afraid to stand up for him or others when he see's someone being teased.
I believe bullying breeds bullying. One of the parents told me that she had heard my son was a part of teasing one of the other kids on the yard. I spoke to my son that day and that is when I talked to him about empathy. I reminded him of what it felt like to be teased. As far as I know, he understood and stopped teasing. As a parent we need to be open to what others have to say and be open to talk to our children. I did not have any of that as a child. I never felt like I have the ability to tell my mom the extent of what was happening to me. My only escape and outlet was drugs and alcohol. My hope is that I can take the lessons of my own experience and teach my son to use his voice and at least put a stop to bullying for him.
It also helps if teachers are aware of what is happening in their class rooms. It does no good if there is zero tolerance in the school and the teacher is not paying attention to what is going on in the classroom. Communication between the parent and teacher is huge in this equation.
It saddens me when I hear about all this cyber bullying taking place and kids shooting up schools. It makes me sad to know that children feel this is their only resort. Communication is key. Parent involvement is crucial. I agree it should be a part of the curriculum, we need to continue educating our children on the differences of everyone and teach them how to embrace the differences.

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