Tag Archives: bullying

Preventing Bullying

“You’re not wearing a blue shirt.” The comment, coming from a Junior in her own blue shirt, was something of a test, and I got partial credit by cringing and saying, “Oh, no! I totally forgot!” At least my response showed I knew that wearing a blue shirt on that particular Monday was meant to draw attention to National Bullying Prevention Month. I did manage to wear purple on GLAAD Spirit Day to take “a stand against bullying and show [my] support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth” (GLAAD), and kept a blue pinky for a week in response to a tweet by @beinggirl; my photo even earned a retweet from the “Secret Mean Stinks” campaign, among others.

For the Humanities 7 unit on “Why do people judge other people and themselves?” one of my students did her individual Focus Question work on bullying. She designed her presentation as much to stimulate conversation as to present information, and she succeeded admirably: the discussion lasted over 45 minutes and might have continued even longer if class hadn’t ended. The students were not without empathy for bullies, coming quickly to general agreement that often, they simply didn’t know better because that was how they were treated, or perhaps they had deep-seated issues of their own and the bullying had nothing to do with the actual victims.

That said, victims of bullying definitely got the most sympathy, all the more so because, as it turned out, some of the students in my class had been bullied at their old schools. Those who chose to tell their stories were met with respectful, rapt, sympathetic attention, and some of them showed tremendous courage and trust in sharing details of what had been said and done to them. Empathy for what the bullies may have been through took a definite back seat to empathy for their classmates, and I’m sure many of them were thinking what one student said out loud: “I’m just so glad I don’t have to worry about bullying at Stoneleigh-Burnham.”

I’m not pretending our school is perfect. As human beings, we all succumb at times to moments of weakness, or trip up on highly inelegant phrasing, and feelings can at times be hurt. But if such moments happen in a relationship that has already put down some roots, it’s easier to work through those moments. Flipping through my Twitter feed today, I stumbled on research that suggested the more a teacher can create an environment where students feel genuinely safe, the more those students will learn and grow. That makes intuitive sense, and I always view creating that level of safety as a moral imperative.

The stopbullying.gov webpage offers some great ideas for preventing bullying before it even starts, and handling it should it happen. These range from media guidelines to specific ideas for parents, educators, the community, teens, and kids. With respect as the basis behind all these suggestions, the more we work to keep our kids safe, the more we’ll be working for a better world.

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Filed under On Education, On Parenting, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized

Mission Critical

Bullied Teen Amanda Todd Uploads Chilling Video Before Being Found Dead buff.ly/TpuvZq Another sad case.
@JudyArzt, Twitter posting, October 13, 2012

The video to which Judy is referring is harrowing to watch. You can’t see Amanda’s face, you can’t hear her voice, you can only see – right up to just before the end of the video – her holding and showing us pieces of paper on which she has written her story. Some of the most painful are pushed up closer to the camera. Only once does her hand move away from this task, to briefly wipe her eyes as she holds up the paper reading “I thought he liked me.” She attempted to kill herself twice, and her death, still under investigation, is currently being presumed a suicide.

Here in Western Massachusetts, as I suppose is sadly true of many parts of the country, we are no strangers to bullied children being driven to suicide. In 2009, 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker Hoover hung himself following repeated taunts of being gay, and in 2010, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince also hung herself following relentless in-person and cyber-bullying. In Ms. Prince’s case, even her suicide didn’t cause the bullies to cease and desist; they posted taunts on a memorial Facebook page, though those were eventually removed. At the time, Massachusetts had no anti-bullying law on the books, but the horrific details of Ms. Prince’s case along with the efforts of Sirdeaner Hoover, Carl’s mom, led finally to the passage of “An Act Relative to Bullying” on May 3, 2010.

In a recent posting, “Don’t Let Me Down [On Opening Up When Things Go Down]” José Vilson wrote on the difficult topic of what to do when you as a teacher suspect one of your students may be at risk of harming herself or himself. With the post coming so close to the recent tragic loss of 17-year-old Emily “Milly” Blosdale-Dionne, who attended Stoneleigh-Burnham for part of her seventh grade year, it moved me deeply. I wrote a comment telling my memories of Emily and how shaken I was to learn of her suicide.

Another cyber-friend of mine, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, followed up with a story of when she happened to overhear a student telling her friend that she was considering killing herself. Having overheard the comment rather than having someone come directly to her, Heather struggled with what to do, eventually settling on sending a note to the student through her school’s network messaging system. There was no response, but several days later, the girl approached her to thank her for caring and to say she had talked to her parents about how she was feeling and they were getting her some help.

A third person, using the pseudonym “No name for now,” added in another story of a suicide, the third in five years at her/his school. S/he continued to speak of teaching an advisory class, and rhetorically asking, “‘What’s the worst thing that can happen if you do tell a counselor? Your friend gets mad, right? What’s the worst that can happen if you don’t tell?’ Silence.” “No name for now” pointed out that, for all the attention given to bullying, not one of those suicides was associated with bullying. Neither was Milly’s, and Heather makes no mention of bullying in her own comment. “No name for now” has a teenager who wishes schools would speak more openly of depression, how to recognize the symptoms, and what to do if you see your friend falling into the abyss.

One of my advisees recently spoke to me about feeling that deaths were piling up in her life. She had connections with Milly, and then knew about the student in our community who had recently experienced a death in her family. We ended up having a discussion in advisory about grief, how it varies from person to person, and how best to react to and support friends and other people who are grieving. The girls were most worried that they not say the wrong thing and make the situation worse, and we talked about how simply expressing sorrow, acknowledging that words seem inadequate, and being there for the person however they might need you would be deeply meaningful.

Ellen Carter, our school counselor, recently announced the annual formation of the faculty group “SOS – Support Our Students,” designed to identify faculty members to whom students can turn in confidence if they have deep concerns for their own health or for that of their friends. Though often connected to substance abuse and eating disorders, the program can expand to handle any concern. Someone turning to SOS would not be subjected to school discipline, but would be connected to various support systems, one of which would necessarily be her parents. The goal is to facilitate calls for help that might otherwise go unvoiced, and get kids the help and support they need to lead the long, healthy, happy and successful lives we wish for them. Of course, all adults at SBS are ready and willing to support kids at a moment’s notice, whether or not they are in the SOS group.

On the day of Emily Blosdale-Dionne’s memorial service, I was talking to my colleague Karen Suchenski, who lives and has taught in the district in which Emily was attending school. We were both hurting, for her and her family specifically but also for kids in general, what they go through, how much you care for them, and how much you want to protect them. Of course, kids need our protection less and less as they grow older, and need to learn increasingly to protect themselves. Still, the only way Karen and I could begin to think to respond to this tragedy was to work ever harder to support and care for kids, strengthen their intrinsic sense of self-worth, and identify anyone who may need extra support before things reach a critical stage. Whatever else we do works best when it springs from a healthy self-image. This is a large part of the mission of our school, one which we always feel and always serve, but one which never feels more critical than at times like these.

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Filed under On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School