Carol is the sort of child who laments that she isn’t getting enough homework from her fourth-grade teacher. She adores math and can identify several species of birds. She loves school — rather, loved it, until she became the bull’s-eye in her class. It all started after she broke a cardinal rule, especially among children: Never get caught picking your nose.
“She was lost in a book,” said her mother, who doesn’t want to be identified and further humiliate her daughter.
“She’s a late nose-picker,” added her father, resignedly.
Behind her parents on the living-room mantel sat a school picture of their daughter, whose story they agreed to tell as long as she would be identified by a pseudonym. In that photograph, Carol’s head is tilted up and a bit to the right with the modestly defiant smile of a child of above-average intelligence who is probably a little different, and wholly unaware that in some circles that is a liability.
After Carol picked her nose, it took only one classmate to scream “Ewwww! That’s nasty!” for her world to crash down around her like dominoes. She became the “Cootie Queen,” and was bullied mercilessly, constantly taunted, and teased. No one wanted to sit with her, walk past her desk, or have her in their group. Even her friends avoided her. Whenever she walked into the classroom, the other kids performed an elaborate group ritual to de-cootify the room. She was shunned.
Her parents weren’t even aware of her experience until she eventually told them months later. Then one Sunday night she broke down completely and begged them not to make her go back to school.
“It’s not bullying,” her dad said, responding to the innocuous-sounding nature of that word. “It’s cruelty.”
These days, when Americans think of the ramifications of our childhood penchant for treating certain peers with contempt, we invariably mention what is known simply as Columbine, the Littleton, Colorado, school shootings that galvanized parents, students, and teachers everywhere. On April 20, 1999, students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, wearing long trench coats to conceal the weapons they were carrying, methodically walked through their high school and let loose a salvo of bullets and bombs that killed thirteen people, twelve of whom were fellow classmates. Then, depending on which account you believe, they either shot themselves, or Harris killed Klebold and then himself.
Although the boys’ actions were obviously reprehensible, people trying to make sense of the tragedy automatically assumed that these were revenge killings carried out by boys from the freaks ‘n’ geeks clique — rejects who ultimately turned the tables on the jocks and cheerleaders who had bullied them for years. It was shocking to think that bullying could wreak such collateral damage. Schools and professionals began a full-scale antibullying blitz.
Five years later, awareness of bullying is everywhere, in the form of studies, books, lectures, and events now held daily in our nation’s schools. “Bullying is where violence against women was thirty years ago,” says Stuart Green, a psychologist who has written about the subject in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “It’s where child abuse was forty years ago. It’s the thing on people’s minds.”
Bullying is even turning into a financial liability for some schools. In the East Bay, at least two bullying-related lawsuits have been filed in recent years. In Walnut Creek, two teenage brothers landed in juvenile hall after one of them shot a spitwad into the eye of a classmate in September 2001, allegedly causing the victim lasting eye damage. The victim not only sued the brothers, but also the school for its alleged negligence in allowing known bullies to continue their behavior. And just last month, a woman filed a $500,000 negligence lawsuit against the Berkeley Unified School District, claiming her daughter chipped a tooth when she was intentionally tripped in the hallway at Willard Middle School.
School officials promote antibullying campaigns not to save money but because they are important things to do, said Nancy Krent, president of the American Council of School Attorneys. She added that such lawsuits are not common: “When they happen, they tend to make the news, making people think there are more of them.”
Still, for whatever reason, antibullying programs have become a cottage industry, especially since cash-strapped schools can receive funding for them under the No Child Left Behind Act, the educational baby of President George W. Bush. The Health Resources and Services Administration, an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services, has launched a large-scale antibullying campaign, “Take a Stand. Lend a Hand. Stop Bullying Now!” Dozens of private and nonprofit organizations offer grants, and a bill just introduced in Congress, the so-called Antibullying Campaign Act, would set aside an extra $75 million in grant money for schools that want to combat the problem.
Jay P. Greene, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, an educational think tank, warned that whenever such grant money enters into the picture, schools should be wary of the “experts” who crop up overnight. “If grant money is only made available for a specific function, then people will arise who will assert confidence in the field,” he said. “It can be true with any specific mandate for schools, to address any particular issue. It becomes a self-perpetuating industry.”
Certainly an industry is coalescing around the push to debullify the world. Call it the Bullying Industrial Complex. There are Anti-Bully.org and AntiBullying.net; Anti Bully Products and the Anti-Bullying Game for teachers; and No-Bully.com, the Web site of the Colorado Antibullying Project. “Recovering bullies” lead talks with students, traveling social workers hold daylong rallies in schools, and police officers explain where bullies can end up (behind bars).
In the East Bay alone, several groups help local schools. No Bully teaches schools and teachers how to adopt what it calls a “whole-school approach” to bullying, which can take years to implement. A San Francisco educator offers a set of class materials, “The Bugging Bug,” aimed at kids with the urge to bully. A program called “Suspension Bridges” is designed to build the characters of problem students, as is “Challenge Day,” a Martinez-based series of seminars.
It’s ironic that education experts should point to the tragedy at Columbine High School as the impetus for all this, since the popular perception of that event’s significance to the bullying debate is completely wrong. According to a post-event report by the FBI, Harris and Klebold were not the geeks of their school, they were not picked on, and they were not necessarily “hurt inside.” The same, it turns out, can be said for most bullies too. Researchers say bullies generally are not people with low self-esteem who lash out at others in some vain attempt to grasp love. In fact, researchers have found that some bullies do what they do because they feel powerful doing it.
Yet most of the new antibullying initiatives — aside from those based on the old-school “zero-tolerance” approach — seem to believe that if only bullies could be made to feel better about themselves, they would stop mistreating others. None of this is to say that some bullies don’t have low self-esteem or aren’t sad, angry, or simply bored at school. But American schools are spending tens of millions of dollars each year on teaching materials, drama productions, and antibullying workshops based on a premise that is dubious at best. Some do little more than hold kids out of class to watch skits about how it’s wrong to steal lunch money. Many charge schools for instruction they could provide on their own. And some, researchers warn, actually may encourage bullying.
Despite the disagreement about how schools should deal with bullying, no one disputes that the phenomenon is widespread. “It’s the thing that most school-age kids suffer from the most,” said psychologist Stuart Green. Although children often face other serious challenges — divorce, illness, or the death of a parent — bullying is the most pervasive. “When you survey kids with cancer and ask them what their greatest source of suffering is, you expect number one to be the pain from the cancer itself, and number two to be the way chemo affects them,” he said. “Instead, the number one thing they say they suffer from is the way … other kids treat them.”
Bullying is usually defined as a prolonged campaign against a child by another kid or a group of kids. Often there is some power imbalance, based on grade, size, income, or looks. Boys are more likely to be physically bullied, while girls are more likely to be on the receiving end of psychological bullying — malicious rumors, teasing, or sexual comments. Most studies conclude the same thing: No matter the economic background, ethnic makeup, or even country, an average of 10 percent of schoolchildren report being bullied in any given year.
People who think that kids should just suck it up and take the taunting as a rite of passage might want to consider some of the effects that bullying is said to have on its victims. Children who have been bullied reportedly perform worse in school than their peers. Some avoid social interactions altogether and become withdrawn. Bullied children also reportedly have higher rates of fear, anxiety, and depression, some of which have even been linked to suicide.
For those who survive their school years, bullying can have long-term ramifications. San Francisco psychotherapist Nicolas Carlisle runs workshops for adult survivors of bullying at the Living Arts Counseling Center in Oakland. Adults who have been bullied can have longstanding feelings of worthlessness, he said. “The biggest challenge that these people face is getting over the idea that there is something wrong with them,” he said.
Carlisle compares the experience of adult survivors of bullying to those of Vietnam vets or victims of child abuse. He has seen evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder in some of his clients. Everyday situations can remind bullying survivors of their trauma, setting off full-fledged panic attacks.
For those who have suffered most, there seem to be two types of survivors: those who are scarred for life, and those who empower themselves as adults by becoming lawyers, martial arts experts, or scholars devoted to the study of bullying. Lucille Cozzolino has attended one of Carlisle’s workshops and dealt extensively with her own bullying-related issues, and is currently working toward her doctorate in psychology with a master’s thesis on school antibullying programs. Talking about her experience over tea at a Piedmont Avenue cafe, the 25-year-old said she was struck by one thing during the workshop: “People who have been badly bullied, all of us in the group, with the exception of myself, had this unwavering idea that you should never, ever, under any circumstances hurt another person.” She stopped and tilted her head slightly to make sure her words had sunk in. To her, such pacifism is not always a realistic response to the world.
Cozzolino grew up on the East Coast, and said that from sixth grade on she was the focus of a particularly sadistic girl. Lisa epitomized the so-called “Mean Girl,” someone who uses psychological tactics to belittle another person. “She would say things like, ‘Hey, do you want to meet all of us at the movies?'” Cozzolino said. “Then, when I would show up, she’d give me a cold stare and say, ‘What are you doing here?’ in front of everyone.” The abuse escalated, until eventually just about everyone in her school ostracized her. It wasn’t until high school that she fell into the “freaks” clique and began to have solid friendships, albeit then only with boys. “It has taken me years to trust women,” she said.
According to Carlisle, adult survivors of bullying usually share a reduced capacity to get and maintain friendships, and have a harder time starting and keeping intimate relationships. One can’t help but conclude that Cozzolino will spend the rest of her life trying to figure out why people bully, why people get bullied, and how people deal with both.
In 1987, long before the current frenzy began, teen counselors Rich and Yvonne St. John-Dutra decided to do something about all the drugs, violence, and bullying they saw in schools. Rich, a licensed therapist, had founded Thunder Road, an Oakland drug rehabilitation program, and Yvonne, in recovery from an eating disorder, had developed programs around that issue in camps and youth programs. They set up shop in Martinez, and “Challenge Day: Be the Change Movement” was born. In 1997, they took their show on the road, holding Challenge Days in schools all over the country. The nonprofit has an annual operating budget of $1.13 million, and served more than 36,000 students last year alone. Challenge Days were held in San Pablo and Oakland this past school year, and will be held in other Oakland schools and the cities of Dublin and Novato in the fall.
Challenge Day leaders go into schools and talk to kids about how to open up, respect one another, and reconnect through a series of skits, talks, and other activities. Although they have no real quantitative way of measuring the success of their program, Challenge Day’s literature claims that participating schools report anywhere from 17 percent drops in bullying to 67 percent drops in disciplinary incidents.
Helms Middle School, a diverse junior high serving “at-risk” kids in San Pablo and Richmond, recently paid the Challenge Day program $2,500 a day in grant money to come to their school for at least eight days. Observers were welcome, but only if they joined in. “There’s no such thing as sitting on the sidelines at Challenge Day,” said “Galaxy,” who, along with a woman named “Blue,” is one of the program’s home office employees.
There were nine adult volunteers, two of whom were teachers at the school. The volunteers were asked to arrive at 8:15 a.m., and were met with smiles and handshakes from the two Challenge Day leaders, Michael, a heavyset African-American man, and Kristy, a short blond. A DJ booth was set up at one end of the school’s rec room to provide music throughout the day, and a horseshoe of folding chairs fanned out around most of the space.
Michael and Kristy outlined the day. The first half would attempt to get the kids to loosen up through games and light “sharing” exercises. Adult facilitators were supposed to be enthusiastic and energetic. The kids would look to them as models of accepted behavior, which in this case meant coming out of their shells and pretending that what they were doing wasn’t completely stupid. Michael said he would announce a new game whenever everyone returned to their seats. Whenever volunteers heard the word “Game,” they were supposed to raise one knee to their chests while pulling their arms in as if giving a massive “ka-ching!” and yell, “Alllll right!!! A GAME!!!” The crowd practiced a few times until Michael thought it was sufficiently loud. Then he said that leaders and volunteers were also to periodically stop what they were doing, pump their fists in the air, and yell “I FEEL GOOD!” then keep pumping their fists, add some pelvic thrusts, and say, “Oh, man, I feel SO GREAT!!”
The second half of the day would be about tapping into feelings and really getting through to the kids. “These are the special-ed kids,” said Orlando Ortiz, the school’s case manager. “You can probably expect more tears with this group.”
The kids filed in in cliques: a circle of pretty Latina girls with their hair pulled sharply back into long ponytails, African-American boys with Lakers and Knicks jerseys, and Asian boys with their pants slung low and baggy. It was easy to see right away the ones who would be a problem to get through to: a group of four Hispanic boys, all with a certain world-weary look, disguised under your basic junior high wardrobe of spiky hair, oversize jackets, and sneakers with fat laces. They were laughing about sitting in a “gay” semicircle with everyone else, and about two adult leaders trying to look cool by dancing to a Jennifer Lopez song.
Once everyone was settled, people were given the option of introducing themselves to the group. The circle then ripped through a series of takeoffs on musical chairs and freeze tag. At one point, the adult volunteers had to stand back to back with a kid, linking arms with one another crab style, and then turn around, shake hands, and say hi. All of this was an attempt to get everyone loose and used to touching one another before moving on to the feelings. (“I believe everyone needs at least twelve hugs a day,” Kristy said.)
Kristy and Michael had everyone bring their chairs in tight for “story time.” The stories they told were of their childhoods, and both of them cried. Kristy said she had looked like a cheerleader on the outside, but on the inside it was quite the opposite. Her mother drank, and her grandfather came home to die at her house and Kristy had to take care of him: “And I said, ‘Pepe, it’s okay, you can go now.'” Tears welled up in her eyes, until a stifled rip-snort of a laugh came from the vicinity of the four Hispanic boys. Kristy got very quiet. They had hurt her feelings, and she told them as much. Michael’s story was even sadder. He was abandoned by his father when he was four, raised in Compton, but rose above all that to go to college, only to learn that his best friend was shot in the head for no reason getting out of his car back home.
Both spoke of a world in which kids could grow up to be safe at school, and a place where people would “lower their water levels.” You see, we are all like icebergs, Kristy said, and show only 10 percent of ourselves to the world. We all need to lower our water levels and show the other 90 percent, which means sharing our feelings, fears, and hopes with others. Many students were moved by their stories and suggested ideas for lowering water levels: “Respect each other,” “Stop fighting,” and “Be a good listener.”
Just when it all seemed like a huge waste of time, things got heavy. After lunch, the leaders had everyone line up with their toes at a blue line of tape on the floor. Everyone was to remain silent during the entire event. Kristy would read out some characteristics, and everyone who had those traits or experiences would walk across to another line, turn around, and face the rest. First, she said, “Everyone who is under eighteen, please cross over.” And all the kids went. Then she said, “Everyone who is over 45,” and most of the volunteers went. Then she began whittling down our differences even more. “Anyone of African descent,” then “Anyone of Asian descent,” and so on. Eventually she got to people who had a family member who had died of a disease, or of smoking, or of gang violence, and one by one, the kids and volunteers whom this applied to walked over. “Anyone who has been teased or taunted for being too skinny, small, or short,” and everyone little wandered over. Then she did the same for big people. By then, tears were flowing, especially when Kristy mentioned violence, HIV, and having a bad home life. It was moving to face the people who walked across and turned around. Even the four Hispanic boys didn’t act up during this part, although none of them ever copped to anything that wasn’t already obvious to their classmates. One girl in particular seemed to cross the tape for every hardship mentioned, with tears streaming down her face. She buried her head in a volunteer’s shoulder and sobbed through most of the exercise.
Afterward, the mood was a bit somber, and everyone returned to small groups to talk about their feelings. Two people were crying: a boy who had earlier told the group, “My father lives in Mexico; he’s never there for me,” and a girl who said she didn’t want to talk about it. The group sat in silence for a while, as the leaders played corny classical music in what seemed like a further attempt to draw out feelings. “Lower your water levels,” they reminded the kids.
The day ended with one of the promises Challenge Day makes in its pamphlet: “Imagine the school bully stands up with tears streaming down his cheeks, one hundred of his peers watching as he apologizes to the kid he has picked on since kindergarten.” Everyone was invited to make amends to people, or simply thank the others for being there. At least two kids got up in front of everyone and made formal apologies to people whom they had teased. Then the girl who had been sobbing during the line exercise got up. “I just want to say,” she said, faltering a bit as if she wasn’t sure she really wanted to share it, “that I was raped when I was little, once when I was seven and once when I was eleven. And if something like that happens to you, you should say something, tell someone. I’m getting counseling for it and it’s not your fault.” After her admission, the leaders gave her a big hug and the kids applauded her bravery.
Around the room, there were lots of sad faces and tears. “Do you feel better than when you came here today?” one boy was asked. “No,” was his reply.
After the kids left, the volunteers were debriefed, and case manager Orlando Ortiz offered his positive assessment: “I saw things today I have never seen in some of these kids.”
The volunteers filled out forms about the kids in their groups, in case any of them needed follow-up. Ortiz pledged to get help for all of them, which was comforting to know, especially regarding the girl who had revealed her rape in front of a roomful of sixth- and seventh-graders. “The Challenge Day people told us up front that they know that this is gonna raise a lot of issues,” said one of Helms Middle School’s vice principals, Wendy Warda. “And they expect that the school take responsibility for following up with students.”
Programs like Challenge Day are what experts call “one-shots,” a once-only attempt to alter school dynamics. To be fair, Challenge Day also offers follow-up programs, including a mentorship that trains students to administer the program in the absence of outsiders. Not all schools have the money to do that, however. Warda knew that hers would be responsible for doing its own follow-up.
Programs of this type are good for kids who feel inferior or depressed, but some academics say they aren’t so good at curbing bullying. In fact, they may even encourage it.
“A good example of this is your typical ‘Day of Respect’ event in a school auditorium,” Stuart Green said. “People in authority spend the day in a very dramatic fashion, telling kids that bullying is wrong, it’s horrible, and it’s terrible that it is going on in the school.” Meanwhile, sitting in the audience are kids who have been bullied, and their hopes begin to soar — maybe the behavior will really stop! Even the bystanders feel bad about themselves, feeling sympathetic to the woes of the kids they have silently watched being attacked.
But for the bullies? According to Green, they’ve in essence just spent an entire day learning how powerful it is to be a bully. “Well, when you sit at the back and deliberately watch the kids who bully walk out of the auditorium after this, you see the same thing,” he said. “They swell up; their empowerment is amazing. And kids end up getting hurt worse.”
Some prominent mental health professionals agree. In a 1996 article in the Psychological Review, researchers found that violent or aggressive people usually have higher self-esteem than other people, not less. The article specifically targeted programs in schools that claim to raise self-esteem. “The societal pursuit of high self-esteem for everyone may literally end up doing considerable harm,” the journal concluded.
Helms Vice Principal Warda disagrees, saying that the experience the other kids get is well worth it. “These things give the other students more empowerment to stand up for themselves and see that they are not alone,” she said. “What Challenge Day does is it makes it okay for the majority of kids who identify with the victim and it gives them the courage to stand up to the bullies as a group … it gives them a one-day experience where people will stand with you and say, ‘I was victimized too. ‘”
For schools that don’t want to bring in outside people to lecture or have all-day encounters, there are dozens of teaching materials available about bullying. Many of them seem merely to be jumping on the bandwagon.
Slim Goodbody, that whimsical promoter of health clad only in a mullet haircut and an anatomically accurate leotard, who delivers his message via books, television shows, and classroom videos, has added bullying to his Web site. His program is called “The Big Bad Bully: How to Make Him Go Away … Forever,” which sounds suspiciously like a primer on how to hire a hitman, but is in fact a series of brochures for teachers to hand out. Goodbody’s brochure claims that “low self-esteem is the root cause of both being bullied and bullying.”
“Already we see a problem, because they have identified the bully as a ‘him,'” said Jim Vetter, an antibullying professional and professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “That’s one of the biggest myths around bullying, that it’s something only boys do.” Goodbody also relies on the old “low self-esteem” paradigm. “If you are seeing something that’s key message talks about self-esteem,” Vetter added, “then you have to wonder if this is the most responsible choice for your school.”
Sunburst, a leading supplier of educational materials to schools, also offers an antibullying package. The Sunburst materials emphasize one of the most pervasive ideas surrounding bullying: that it’s between kids, and up to them to work out. For example, after telling the person being bullied that a good approach is to “use humor” to deflect the bully’s attention — “You can stop the bully from laughing at you by getting him or her to laugh with you. It puts the bully off balance” — Sunburst suggests finding allies, fellow students who will stand up to the bully with you (with no mention of teachers or administrators). It also says other good approaches are to ignore the teasing, walk away, or defend yourself. Finally, it suggests, tell a person in charge at the school: “You have the option of telling what happened and getting help from an adult.”
But academicians say taking bullies on by yourself is terrible advice. Carol, the fourth grader dubbed “cootie queen,” initially went to her parents after months of abuse and told them what was happening. Not wanting to make things worse — at the insistence of their worried daughter — her parents initially didn’t take the problem to school officials. Her father encouraged her to stand up to the bullies. When a particular girl walked past Carol’s desk and said her usual “Yuck, don’t touch Carol’s desk,” her father recalled advising her to say, “No! You can’t talk to me that way; it’s not nice. I won’t allow it!”
Carol’s father wanted her to know that she was strong and could handle them, and he thought she needed a taste of victory against her tormentors. “I can remember the day I stood up to my bully,” he recalled. “It ended with me grasping him in a headlock. He never bothered me after that.”
Psychologist Stuart Green quarrels with this approach. Although the parents may think they are empowering their child by telling them they are strong enough to stand up to it, that’s not necessarily what the child hears. “It’s a failed strategy,” he said. “In fact, it’s an immoral strategy, because it implies that the kid who’s being hurt is responsible for ending the hurting, and in most cases the kid who’s being hurt can’t end the hurting.” Green suggests that a useful way to view bullying is through the lens of violence against women. “Imagine yourself telling a woman who is in a violent relationship with a guy, ‘You need to stand up for yourself. ‘”
Very few antibullying campaigns seem to have incorporated the latest research on the topic. The study of bullying is relatively new; US researchers mostly began working on it in the last decade. To get to the roots of bullying research, you have to go to Norway, where Dan Olweus, a professor of psychology, lives and works. Olweus is said to have been the first person to study bullying and publish his findings, and is generally considered to be the world’s leading expert on the phenomenon.
Olweus concluded that bullies don’t necessarily have low self-esteem, and that kids who are being bullied can feel abandoned by adults. He first published his findings in 1969, but it wasn’t until 1983, when Norway had its own Columbine, that his work began to gather steam. Three youths committed suicide that year; all, it was reported, as a result of being bullied in school. The event so shocked the country that the government ran to Olweus for answers. He stepped up his research and devised a systematic approach for schools to employ in dealing with it. Olweus developed what he calls the “Whole-School Approach,” which incorporates teachers, principals, students, parents, the community, even the maintenance men and cafeteria workers, in an all-out antibullying blitz.
The plan has since been implemented in more than eleven countries. It involves an ongoing commitment that can take up to three years to fully implement. But, theoretically, once it’s in place, the climate of a school changes so drastically that bullying can decrease by as much as half.
The approach is very involved. First, a school needs to survey its students to find out how pervasive the problem is. Teachers and administrators never know exactly how much bullying is going on around them, and this gives them answers. After three years, researchers can return to the same school and see if there has been a decline. Olweus was excited to see that surveys suggested there had been a decline at every school that participated in his program.
Once the survey is taken, a school forms an antibullying committee to oversee the project, staff are trained in Olweus’ findings, schoolwide rules are posted, recess and breaks must always be supervised, and any reports of bullying trigger one-on-one talks with both the bully and the bullied.
In short, it’s a psychological approach that lessens the rewards for bullying. “The idea is that if you can remove the power that bullies get from bullying, they’ll stop,” said Katy Moffett, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and a project director for the Olweus approach in several schools. For example, a typical bully usually has several cronies who go along because they know it could just as easily be them on the receiving end. But, the model says, if a teacher, principal, or cafeteria worker rewards positive student behavior and the rest of the class goes along with it, the henchmen will no longer want to associate with the bully.
Moffett pointed out that bullying is so pervasive that some kids think it’s just something they have to deal with. Part of the approach is for a school to simply say that bullying is not okay. “If you teach kids that it is not normal behavior, that they don’t have to expect to be teased or harassed, then they will stand up for each other,” she said.
Stuart Green also is an Olweus disciple. “It’s not really the kids that we’re really doing something about,” he said. “It’s the culture of the school. It’s how the school behaves that we are doing something about.”
Challenge Day teaches a caring model for treating each other well, and most other antibullying programs do the same. But the most essential thing these approaches leave out is time. You can’t change things overnight. On the other hand, the required time commitment could be the major flaw of the Whole-School Approach. When a school is busy preparing for standardized testing, or dealing with drugs and weapons, a full-scale fatwa against bullying may not be at the top of its list. It’s far easier to suspend the bullies, which at least shows that you are taking the behavior seriously, than it is to actually alter the climate in your school.
But while the Whole-School Approach might take time, it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money. In fact, administrators can learn everything they need to know about the program online, and then implement it in their school. “Stopping bullying is not about selling a product,” Jim Vetter said. “It’s about doing the kind of deep work over time to create the kind of caring environments where bullying just doesn’t fit.” Instead of one-shots or punitive approaches to the bully, schools are encouraged to dig deeper.
If there is one school that is living the model, it is Park Day School, a private grade school at the base of 43rd Street in Oakland. One need only walk into the courtyard to see just how different this place is from other Oakland schools. On a recent afternoon, kids were looking at a weird bug they’d found over by “Peter Rabbit’s vegetable patch,” while a teacher and her class sauntered by enthusiastically, marching to the tune of the theme from The Bridge on the River Kwai. Meanwhile, a group of second graders clustered around the front door while their bemused teacher vainly struggled to open it.
“Uh-oh!” she turned around and exclaimed to her class exaggeratedly. “The door’s locked! No school today! No school today!” Then she began dancing, and her whole class joined in, chanting, “No school! No school!” and waving their arms rhythmically to her singing. Everyone was laughing.
Fighting and mean words are not allowed at Park Day School. There also is no war play allowed. Director Tom Little, one of the founders of the school, wanted to create a safe, peaceful place to learn, where children’s emotional well-being and growth was just as important as academic instruction.
Every year the school focuses on different topics outside of academics. This year, administrators decided to take on bullying. Little, who started the school more than 25 years ago but barely looks a day over 35, said they decided to focus on bullying after considering world affairs. “The children have been more and more exposed to bellicose politicians,” he said. “This is a place of peace.”
As part of the Whole-School Approach to bullying, the teachers have a weekly class meeting where kids can discuss worrisome behavior between their classmates, or students who have been teased, hit, or picked on can talk about how it made them feel. Then the bullies who were doing the teasing can apologize and make amends. Classrooms have wall charts on which children can document any bullying behavior they witnessed, and the teachers also discuss those with their classes.
The school’s attack plan was simple: Students were educated about what bullying is, how to spot it, how to handle it, and how to prevent it. Parents also were invited to learn. Then second graders wrote a pamphlet, Stop Bullying in Elementary School. “Do you know what bullying is?” it asks. “If you do, do you like it? Try to help other kids understand what it is. If other kids understand what it is, they will probably stop doing this.”
So far, the “Kumbaya” approach seems to be working, although to hear the Park’s staff talk, this school always has been special when it comes to dealing with such issues. In a school that values kindness as much as it values learning long division, how can such a plan not work?
But Park Day School hopes to spread its antibullying message to other schools. That’s why its administrators have shared their pamphlet with Oakland public schools such as Montera Middle School, Emerson Elementary, and Horace Mann Elementary. Several students also have worked out antibullying skits that they performed at these schools. “Schools really need resources,” said Laurie Grossman, coordinator for Park Day School. “Teachers don’t know what to do.”
Much of the pamphlet’s message is about asking bullies to stop and watching out for your fellow students. Those things seem to be tackled fairly easily at a place like Park, but will certainly be more challenging at larger public schools. After all, few public schools are like Park.
Jacob Rubin is a fifteen-year-old-student who calls his days at Berkeley’s Willard Middle School the three worst years of his life. In 2000, when he was in sixth grade, he had long hair down to his shoulders and was immediately called “gay.”
In some ways Jacob is the quintessential geek — he’s tall and lanky, with faint wisps of a mustache and a maturing voice that cracks. He speaks rapidly, like someone whose mind works faster than his mouth. He’s whip-smart and funny, loves computer games, and wants to be a writer, mainly for comics. Underneath his quirky adolescent exterior he has handsome blue eyes and a confident smile.
Jacob said his tormenters were several people who assumed he was gay. “I’m not gay,” he clarifies. “That would change everything. … But then again, I don’t know. I’m not really sure how the ‘bully mind’ works,” he said wryly.
Several people singled him out and taunted him on a daily basis, he recalled. “There was a girl there; she actually picks out two people at the beginning of the year and she decides that she is going to hate them,” he said. “She actually told me that.”
He said he loathed going to school every day and became quiet and withdrawn. Everything came to a head on his birthday, he recalled, when one of his bullies began punching him as a “present” for every year he had been alive. By the last hit he was blubbering and left school for the day. What really hurt him, he said, was that when it was happening, his classmates simply looked on and didn’t try to help.
Jacob never did tell his parents about the bullying, but he eventually told the school’s former principal. He said she never did anything, however, despite his repeated attempts to involve her.
Today, Jacob said he is largely over his abusive junior high years, but still shoulders some residual effects from his experience. He’s more anxious — he certainly fidgets enough — and has nervous habits such as nail biting that weren’t there before. Now he has transferred to the Oakland School for the Arts, where he said he has encountered no problems.
Carol’s large East Bay elementary school also obviously has its share of undiagnosed bullying. The grade school is trying to address issues of respect and bullying but, with 407 students, it’s not so easy — even with a principal who did his master’s thesis on bullying.
That school hasn’t yet adopted a systematic approach to bullying, but does have periodic assemblies to discuss respect and kindness. Nonetheless, Carol’s parents said her teacher claimed she never even noticed the girl being ostracized. After Carol was bullied and eventually spoke up about it, the school’s vice principal came and spoke to her class, telling them in no uncertain terms that calling someone a “cootie queen” was not going to be tolerated.
But Carol’s parents are taking a rather extreme step to solve the problem: They are moving to France. “In just one plane ride, my whole life will change,” she wistfully told her folks. At least, that’s how life must look for someone whose whole life seemingly changed in one afternoon while reading a book.