Many theories, but no proven solutions on how to stop bullying
The story of Ryan Halligan, a 13-year-old who took his own life after being bullied relentlessly by classmates, is rough stuff for any audience to hear.
The students at Schuyler-Colfax Middle School in Wayne sat in reverent silence, heads bowed, as Ryan’s father recounted how his son had been labeled gay and taunted online and at his school in Vermont. Tears ran down a few faces.
Afterward, back in their classrooms, they were “debriefed” by teachers and guidance counselors.
It isn’t always easy to know the right way to get a message across to kids, and in the new crusade against bullying, New Jersey’s public schools are trying just about everything.
The same week last month that students in Wayne somberly filed out of their anti-bullying assembly, the mood was starkly different at Memorial Middle School in Fair Lawn. The auditorium there was filled with excited murmurs as a speaker enlisted volunteers to play Jennifer Lopez and Simon Cowell in mock “American Idol” role-play skits that ended with giggles and the phrase, “Drop the mouse, step away from the computer, and nobody gets hurt.”
In fact, there’s little agreement even among the experts about the best way to teach kids not to victimize each other with hurtful words or actions, or how to get them to speak up when others do it.
Among some New Jersey educators, “the default position is, let’s try everything,” said Andrew Yeager, student assistance coordinator at Park Ridge High School.
Come September, a new law will force New Jersey public schools to have anti-bullying teams in place and to train every staff member or volunteer who has contact with children — from the school board president to the assistant football coach — how to recognize and properly respond to bullying.
Schools will also be required — rather than just encouraged, as under existing law — to establish bullying prevention programs.
The Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and the scores of school shootings that followed it were the catalysts that first triggered a shift in the public mindset about bullying, said Frank Vespa-Papaleo, an adjunct professor at Montclair State University’s Center for Child Advocacy.
When investigations revealed a common characteristic in the shooters — most had been bullied — the notion began to erode that bullying was just an unfortunate but expected rite of passage, Vespa-Papaleo said.
Now as bullying branches out into new digital forms, advocates say prevention programs in schools need to reach deeper into the cultural roots of the problem and to enlist parents, civic leaders and the community at large.
A look around North Jersey schools does indeed find a wide range of anti-bullying approaches.
In New Milford, school counselor Dorene Zacher trained 23 high school seniors to serve as anti-bullying ambassadors who, among other things this year, have handed out “Be a Buddy, Not a Bully” bracelets to peers.
In Ramsey, teacher Roger Quinlan uses the weekly local-access cable show produced by students as a bully pulpit against bullying. The fifth-grade classes at Dater School have taken turns writing, producing and acting in “What Would You Do?” TV segments on bullying, which other students then comment about on a school blog.
One group crafted a tale in which a bully repeatedly sent mean texts to another girl, and then sent other classmates a picture of the victim scratching her head, claiming the girl had lice.
“People really aren’t that mean in this school,” said 10-year-old Cassie Phillips, who played the victim, adding that she hoped that would still be true when she reaches middle school.
In some districts, prevention efforts start as early as kindergarten. Maxine Lawrence, guidance counselor at the Grant and Roosevelt schools in Ridgefield Park, acts out puppet shows for the schools’ youngest students. When “Impulsive Puppy” pushes at the water fountain or excludes “Slow Down Snail” from a game, the little snail stops wanting to go to school.
“The message just has to be repeated time and time again,” Lawrence said. “And as kids get older, we have to change it and tailor it to what they can understand and relate to.”
Some critics say educators need to learn more about how their school’s culture might be enabling bullies rather than just blanketing the student body in anti-bullying messages.
“I think a lot of schools are just casting about for what to do,” said Stuart Green, who serves as director of the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention.
One of the advocates who pressed legislators for what is seen as the country’s strongest anti-bullying law, Green thinks schools have put too much emphasis on auditorium presentations and speakers that can cost thousands of dollars. Rather, Green said, schools should be identifying the bullying dynamics within their school and training staff to properly intervene.
“I have a major problem with auditorium programs,” Green said. “Our message to schools is, ‘If that’s all you are going to do, then don’t do them.’Ÿ”
Others argue, however, that — combined with other strategies — assemblies and one-day presentations that put kids into “what if” scenarios can help them make better decisions.
Telling his son’s story
John Halligan quit his job at IBM a few years after his son’s suicide to travel the country to tell Ryan’s story. He knows it will take more than his emotion-choked voice to turn off “the meanness switch” that clicks on in some kids during the middle-school years. But he hopes his presentations reach some of the kids who serve as the audience for the cruelty on the playground or on the Internet.
“It’s the bystanders we have to go after,” he said.
A community group, the Wayne Alliance for the Prevention of Substance Abuse, paid the $6,000 for Halligan to speak at the town’s three middle schools and to hold two presentations for parents in March.
Parry Aftab, who put on the presentation in Fair Lawn last month, is an Internet privacy expert who founded an organization called Wired Safety. She’s been a fixture at schools around the country. Her not-for-profit organization typically charges schools $10,000 for workshops designed to teach kids how to use the Internet safely and to caution them about engaging in the wildfire-like spread of cyber-taunting.
A Bergen County resident, Aftab donated her time at Memorial Middle School last month, and at Thomas Jefferson, Fair Lawn’s other middle school.
Earlier in the school year, the Fair Lawn students viewed a movie produced by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office called “Sticks Stones,” a fictional story about a teen who commits suicide after being taunted online by a bully posing as a girl he liked.
The Prosecutor’s Office used funds seized in crimes to pay for the film.
Keying on emotions
Like many of the current strategies being used to curb bullying in schools, the film packs an emotional wallop. It’s been shown in at least half the county’s schools and others around the country. Some schools have stopped the film before the ending, thinking their kids wouldn’t be able to handle the suicide.
Yeager, of Park Ridge, who wrote the 75-page teaching manual that accompanies the DVD, said the emotional intensity of the film is by design. The writers want kids to connect to the teens in the film — the victim as well as the bullies and the bystanders — in the hope that they will then be better equipped to make better choices in their own lives.
“Teenagers’ brains aren’t always wired to connect behavior with consequences,” Yeager said. “We need to give them practice in making better decisions when they’re not in the heat of the moment.”
Sue Heguy, who heads the team of counselors who come into Bergen County schools after a tragedy, worries that too much linking of bullying with suicide might cause victims to despair. She thinks students would benefit more from being trained in “self-help-seeking behaviors.”
Heguy, who also trains teachers and school staff on anti-bullying strategies, said schools need to make sure students know where to turn if they are being bullied or if they witness someone else being bullied.
Many kids are reluctant to turn to parents, teachers or school officials for help. Advocates say that’s because adults have often taken the wrong approach to bullying.
Telling victims to ignore bullies or telling them they need to learn “social skills.” Putting a bully in the same room with a victim to talk out the conflict. Punishing all students involved with a physical altercation without attempting to determine the power struggle between a bully and a victim.
All are typical mistakes adults make when attempting to stop bullying relationships, said Vespa-Papaleo, of Montclair State’s Center for Child Advocacy.
Vespa-Papaleo says the best thing that may come of the new state law is the requirement that schools better train all school staff. The law also sets out procedures for investigating incidents and makes it clear that schools are also responsible to intervene in cases where the bullying might take place outside the school but makes the victim feel intimidated and unsafe in their school.
Vespa-Papaleo said the law will also force schools to keep and report statistics on bullying, which will finally allow them to gauge whether prevention programs are making any headway.
A major reason schools miss the mark in their bullying prevention and response strategies is because they don’t have an adequate picture of the power struggles going on in their own schools, advocates contend.
Conducting annual surveys and assessments would aid schools in knowing if certain populations — perhaps a minority group or special-education students — are the usual targets, Vespa-Papaleo said.
“A lot of schools are eager to have someone from the outside come in and do a program on bullying for their school,” Vespa-Papaleo said. “But what more schools need to realize is that you have to mold the programs to what you actually find is going on in your school.”
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