Battling Bullying: What to Do When Push Comes to Shove
The story of Phoebe Prince, a fifteen-year-old student at South Hadley High School who took her own life last January after being bullied mercilessly by classmates, made national headlines. The Boston Globe ran a column titled “Untouchable Mean Girls,” and Phoebe’s photo was splashed on the cover of People. The case appeared on the evening news and was debated on the Dr. Phil and Today shows.
Massachusetts Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth D. Scheibel ’77 took an aggressive stance with Prince’s bullies, handing down serious criminal charges including civil rights violation with bodily injury, which carries a maximum penalty of ten years in prison.
“It appears that Phoebe’s death on January 14 followed a tortuous day for her, in which she was subjected to verbal harassment and threatened physical abuse,” Scheibel said in March. “The events were not isolated, but the culmination of a nearly three-month campaign of verbally assaultive behavior and threats of physical harm.” Scheibel also charged the two male bullies with statutory rape because they were seventeen and eighteen, while Phoebe was under the age of consent.
Although Scheibel was not at liberty to discuss the ongoing case with me, she said that bullying is an issue her office has been working on for at least a decade. “A couple of years ago, we saw an increase in bullying between girls—increased aggression,” added Scheibel.
Bullying is serious
What happened to Prince was extreme, but many children and teens endure less serious harassment and taunting that can have a lifelong psychological impact.
South Hadley High had a history of bullying incidents before Prince’s case. A 2005 survey revealed that 30 percent of students said they’d been bullied in the past year. National research shows that as many as 25 percent of US students are bullied with some frequency.
Prince’s suicide has served as a wake-up call not just for South Hadley High, where an Anti-Bullying Task Force was formed soon after her death, but also for schools, administrators, and parents across the country. Prince’s case galvanized Massachusetts legislators to revive a decade-old anti-bullying bill (it passed last April), and it has inspired school districts from coast to coast to launch anti-bullying curricula.
“For too long, schools in general and organizations that work with kids have taken the perspective of, ‘Boys will be boys, and girls will be girls, and everyone goes through this,’’ says Christopher E. Overtree, director of The Psychological Services Center at UMass–Amherst.
But as a teacher or parent, it is vital to intervene.
Sabrina Vollers ’02 was bullied ruthlessly as a kid. “I was hit, spat on, called mean names, taunted, tricked and pranked, completely ostracized, even had my books and belongings peed on,” recounts Vollers. This occurred from fifth through eighth grades, and she didn’t escape the misery until she left for an all-girls’ boarding school for her freshman year of high school.
Vollers, like other alumnae I interviewed, remembers this harassment with startling specificity, even though it happened decades ago. She says she never could have survived those torturous years without the support of her parents. (Interestingly, they had both been bullied as children, too.)
“They were never like, ‘Why are you so unpopular?’ They were very sympathetic and always told me that, if I ever had to do anything in my defense, they would totally back me up,” she says. Her father always told her, “If anybody hits you, you hit them back.”
At one point, Vollers did just that, when a kid in English class called her a “fat pig” and drew a line from her forehead to her chin, cutting her with his pen in the process. “I was so upset that I punched him right in the face,” says Vollers. “The teacher said, ‘Oliver, go to the principal’s office right now and stay there until the end of the day.’” Vollers remembers this as one of the few times when a teacher was on her side.
Christina La Luna ’93 says that teachers at her Catholic elementary school in Pennsylvania only worsened her already miserable situation. During a vocabulary lesson, one teacher introduced the word lunatic. Because of her name, “From that point on, I was known as “La Lunatic,” she recounted. “It was very hurtful for that to dog me year after year.”
What teachers can do
Teachers should intercede when they witness bullying, but they often don’t, say bullying experts, mostly because they aren’t taught how to recognize and handle difficult social relationships.
“Teachers get little training in understanding social relationships,” says Susan Engel, a senior lecturer in psychology at Williams College. “They don’t know how to evaluate a kid who needs treatment” for bullying behavior.
In July, Engel and her colleague Marlene Sandstrom, a psychology professor at Williams College, wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times, urging schools to go beyond quick-fix anti-bullying measures (such as a one-time assembly speaker) and instead invest in comprehensive training sessions in which teachers and administrators learn how complex children’s social interactions really are.
“Some bullies have a pathology underlying their bullying—they need special therapy,” says Engel, but the more common kind of bullies are otherwise nice kids. “If they came to your house with their parents, they’d seem like cute, normal kids. And they are, but they’ve gotten really off track.” These are the kinds of kids teachers can typically reach, says Engel.
Furthermore, students need to know which adults they’re supposed to report bullying incidences to, and that adult needs to be nonthreatening. “It’s amazing how many kids, when you ask them, say, ‘I wouldn’t know who to tell,’” says Sandstrom. “And then many teachers say, ‘Stop being a tattle-tale.’”
In Norway, where a series of bullying-related suicides in the early 1980s forced a national conversation about how to combat bullying, the government passed comprehensive anti-bullying legislation. In their op-ed, Engel and Sandstrom described that country’s efforts, which have been extremely effective. “There, everyone gets involved—teachers, janitors, and bus drivers are all trained to identify instances of bullying, and taught how to intervene. Teachers regularly talk to one another about how their students interact. Children in every grade participate in weekly classroom discussions about friendship and conflict.” During the first two years of these programs, bullying fell by half.
The man behind Norway’s initiatives is Dan Olweus, and his anti-bullying prevention program is considered one of the most effective in the world. Many US schools have already implemented it with great success.
Several years ago, D.A. Elizabeth Scheibel’s office invited bullying expert Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabees, to present her Owning Up curriculum to interested area teachers and administrators. The program aims to get students to take responsibility for unethical behavior. Wiseman’s two-day workshop used a “train the trainers” approach—teachers returned to their schools to implement it. Scheibel’s office recently sent a staff person to become a master trainer in the Olweus program; this fall, the D.A.’s office will offer that program to district schools.
At Wahconah Regional High School in Massachusetts, history teacher Caitlin Harrigan Graham ’07 rarely sees bullying. She credits the school’s long-term investment in promoting a sense of community between students and faculty via an annual “Civility Day.” “Kids tell heart-felt stories. Teachers say things like, they used to have a lisp and were made fun of—and that’s why they became a teacher in the first place. This hits home with the kids,” says Graham. “One teacher spoke about being gay, and growing up at a time when it was not all right.”
The only time that Graham witnessed bullying at her school was last year, when she overheard a sophomore boy teasing a freshman girl who had had an abortion earlier in the year. “They were in study hall talking about a book they’d read in which this character had had an abortion. He said, ‘That’s you,’ and poked her. She looked upset,” recounts Graham, who immediately went over to remonstrate him. “He instantly said, ‘I’m really sorry Ms. Harrigan, I’m really sorry, Sarah,’” says Graham.
Improving the social climate through something like Civility Day is exactly what Overtree, the UMass–Amherst professor, does as a senior consultant for the Center for School Climate and Learning. “I think of my work not as anti-bullying but as pro-social work,” he says. “We try to stimulate a positive social climate that makes bullying stand out as a negative behavior.” He does this by first understanding what a school’s community norms are and then by forming student leadership teams. “Bullying happens in front of other kids. We need bystanders to step up,” he says.
In one Tennessee school that Overtree and his colleagues assessed, the main issue was that the students lacked empathy. Instead of having teachers give lectures on bullying, faculty and staff approached the dilemma creatively: they purchased hand looms and started a club where students made hats for newborn babies in the community as well as pediatric cancer patients at local hospitals. “It was just a little hat program, but it had a drastic change on the demeanor of the school,” he says. “Every student became engaged. Academically, things improved, too.” Overtree says this side benefit is common. “After a good climate-improvement process, you will see about an 11 percent improvement in academics.”
What parents can do
Sabrina Vollers ’02 remembers clearly how her mother calmed her down during the worst of her harassment. “When I came home from school crying, my mom used to tell me ‘Look, these people are nothing. They don’t mean anything in your life and you’ll soon be on to bigger, brighter, and better things. It won’t matter what happened in grade school.’” Her mom’s words have borne themselves out. Vollers, now getting her PhD in biochemistry, has a great circle of friends and is amused by one turn of events. Some of these very same bullies now want to “Friend” Vollers on Facebook. “I certainly wish them the best,” she says, “but I don’t want to be their Friends.”
Aside from emotional and moral support, parents can also play a crucial role by communicating with teachers and administrators. “Parents need to be on board with the bullying policy,” says Sandstrom, who suggests sharing the policy with parents at a mandatory PTA meeting. That way, they’ll know whom to talk to—a guidance counselor, the principal, a teacher, or all three—should their child become a bully or the victim of bullying.
But parents also need to teach their kids to respect others and appreciate their differences. Elizabeth Scheibel ’77, the D.A. in the Phoebe Prince case, says she never would have dreamt of talking to anyone the way the kids at South Hadley High allegedly spoke to Prince. “I don’t want to sound Pollyannaish, but I was raised in a home where we were taught manners, respect, and civility,” says Scheibel. “It wasn’t acceptable to talk about others in a negative way. It wasn’t tolerated, quite honestly.”
The new twist of cyberbullying
It used to be that bullying was more common among boys, but with the advent of Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging, bullying is now equally prevalent between both genders, says Overtree. Girls tend to be more proficient at what social scientists call “relational aggression”—teasing, malicious gossip, and verbal threats—all of which are facilitated by technology.
Boys, however, also use technology to harass their peers. Susan Vaughan-Fier ’94 is a teacher at a private high school in Minnesota, where several boys were suspended last year for sending harassing texts of a sexual nature to female classmates.
“The girls who reported it later wanted to recant,” says Vaughan-Fier, explaining that they were bullied again—by the same boys and by female peers—for having spoken out to their teachers. “But the text evidence was there.” This incident motivated the school to examine its sexual-harassment policy and to institute weeklong homeroom lessons on sexual harassment.
Barring your children from the Internet is not practical or necessary, says Gail Scanlon FP’94, who works in Mount Holyoke’s Library, Information, and Technology Services and who served on the Online Behavior Subcommittee of South Hadley High’s Anti- Bullying Task Force.
“It was important for me to help people understand that barring access to the Internet and social-networking sites is not the answer to eliminating bullying,” says Scanlon. Among her task force’s recommendations were free workshops for parents about online safety and privacy issues; a public service announcement student contest against cyberbullying; and mandating that each student receive at least two hours of training about cyberbullying each year.
Psychologist Susan Engel says that, while the Internet offers another venue for bullying, it hasn’t necessarily increased bullying. “Kids have always gossiped and done it away from adult eyes,” she says. “They used to do it at the park or in the woods or at the back of a soda fountain shop.”
It’s naïve to think that bullying can be prevented entirely. However, being pro-active—by teaching kids civility, creating community, and forging collaboration—can create an environment in which bullying becomes rare. When there’s a shared sense of responsibility, of working toward a common goal—remember the Tennessee students who made hats for pediatric cancer patients—kids are more likely to have empathy for one another.
Engel’s son’s school district has started a community garden. “It promotes community and a sense of shared responsibility, a sense of the common good,” she says. “Any school could do this. It’s just a matter of will.”
—By Hannah Wallace ’95
This article appeared in the fall 2010 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.
(www.olweus.org) Dr. Dan Olweus is the pioneering bullying researcher whose anti-bullying initiatives were adopted by the Norwegian government and rolled out at public schools there in the early 1980s. (As a result, the incidence of bullying fell by half.) This site contains program materials, video archives, and up-to-date information on conferences and online seminars.
Stop Bullying Now
(stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov), produced by the Health Resources and Services Administration, has sections targeted to both kids and adults. For adults, there are tip sheets, background on cyberbullying, and best practices in bullying prevention. For kids, the site has cartoon Webisodes illustrating common bullying scenarios (pictured below), tips on how to be a youth leader, and simple steps to take if you’re being bullied.
(www.necscl.org) This site has information and videos about the New Hampshire-based company’s services—which include student leadership training, Webinars for teachers and administrators, and SafeMeasures (a four-stage process that brings together teams of student and adult leaders to set goals, create action plans, and initiate projects that promote measurable school climate improvement). There is also a great page of resources that relate to school climate, bullying, respect, and safety.
Rosalind Wiseman: Creating Cultures of Dignity
(http://rosalindwiseman.com) The author and educator on children, teens, parenting, education, and social justice aims to help parents, educators, and young people successfully navigate the social challenges of young adulthood. Her blog posts cover topics such as “5 Ways to Prevent and Stop Cyberbullying” and “Why Are Our Girls So Angry?”
May 2, 2012