On a warm spring evening at the Seaside Dance studio in Westerly, troupe members used their nimble limbs to send a message: Bullying hurts.
Eleven- to 18-year-olds in black leotards pirouetted through Adam Lambert’s “Mad World,” tap-danced to “Mean Girls” by Sugarland and used modern dance moves to simulate a suicide in Pearl Jam’s grunge classic, “Jeremy.”
In their award-winning “Take a Stand” number, the girls called out statistics about bullying, and together they have a strong voice, for every last one has a story to tell about being treated cruelly by their contemporaries.
It does not matter that they are bright, beautiful young ladies. All have been stung, and they say bullying is escalating, mostly because kids have near-constant access to phones and computers.
“People say stuff over texting and Facebook that they wouldn’t say to your face,” said Katelyn McElkenny, 16. “In school the next day, they act like it never happened.”
The dancers said Formspring, a relatively new social networking site used by teenagers, ostensibly to learn more about each other by asking questions, has become a magnet for bullies who can bash others anonymously.
The dance studio is a refuge where they can put down their cellphones and count on support from each other and their instructors. For 11-year-old Jahnessa Shuler of Pawcatuck, Seaside was a lifeline during what she described as tortured elementary school years.
For another dancer, who asked that her name not be used, the worst bullying occurred in middle school, where classmates created a Facebook page that poked fun at her. Her father worked with the school and Facebook to remove the page and said he monitors his daughter’s online activity.
“In the old days, kids threw sticks and stones,” the father said in a phone interview. “Now they have new things to throw at each other.”
Taking bullying seriously
Throughout the region and the country, children and their parents are reporting problems with bullying on a daily basis. Kids say they are targeted because of their height, weight, race or sexual orientation. They are picked on because of their accents, clothing or hairstyles, or if they have an acne breakout. Some don’t know why they have become targets or why people they thought were their friends are bullying them.
Occasionally, families and communities are shocked by reports that a teenage suicide was the result of bullying. In Montville, classmates of a 10th-grader who committed suicide in January said bullying might have pushed him to kill himself. The teen’s family has not spoken publicly about the incident and declined to comment for this article. State police are investigating.
Bullying sometimes leads to criminal acts, as in the case of three teenagers in New London who allegedly tormented a 12-year-old boy with BB guns last month, laughing as he begged them to spare his life. The three boys, who videotaped the incident with a cellphone, were arrested. Their cases are pending in juvenile court.
One of the most common complaints from bullying victims and their families is that school officials did not respond when told of the problem. Under Connecticut law, every school must have a bullying policy and a prevention and intervention strategy and must report all verified incidents of bullying to the state Department of Education. The annual reports of bullying incidents are available upon request at schools.
The bullying law is aimed at having schools respond appropriately by helping the victims feel safe and supported and taking disciplinary action when bullying is confirmed. When police get involved, the “bully” is typically charged with breach of peace or harassment.
Curtailing bullying can be as simple as beefing up adult presence during recesses, lunches and in hallways, which New London Superintendent Nicholas Fischer said has been done in his district. At Norwich Free Academy, which has an extensive campus safety department, students are reminded they can report incidents to many adults, not just the main office. Groton enables students and parents to go online to report bullying incidents.
“If you’re going to combat bullying you have to have a well-known, well-structured mechanism for reporting, and the students on campus have to feel that it is going to be taken seriously,” said Jason Shirley, a social worker at Norwich Free Academy. “There’s never a situation here where someone is going to say, ‘Tough, just deal with it.’ ”
The Connecticut General Assembly is considering a bill that would add cyber bullying to the existing law.
“If you commit an act of bullying in person, there is always that fear of consequences, like from the school or police,” Shirley said. “When you’re operating online, there is a cognitive removal from the fact that this action you’re taking might have consequences.”
The bill has made it through the Education and Judiciary committees with support from both political parties. It is unclear if it will come to a vote during the remainder of the legislative session.
Changing schools helped
Jahnessa Shuler, the 11-year-old dancer from Pawcatuck, said kids bullied her beginning in kindergarten. Her mother, Tiffany Johnston, said Jahnessa always wore the latest fashions, smiled and tried to make friends, but there was a disconnect with Jahnessa’s peers that she didn’t understand.
In chorus rehearsal, a group of girls sat behind Jahnessa, tossed things at her head and kicked her chair. Girls called her “dirty”; she is of mixed race and her glowing brown skin is darker than theirs. They teased her about the texture of her hair and nicknamed her “bug eyes.”
“It just progressed and got worse,” Jahnessa said in an interview. “I wasn’t doing good in school. I was always playing by myself. When we were building something, I would go up to people and say, ‘Want to be my partner?’ They would say ‘no.’ “
In the summer before fifth grade, she’d had enough. At camp, she had no one to play with. “I would try to make friends and that wasn’t really successful. Once I got there I would start to cry because of all the people playing together, and I would just sit there,” she said.
Jahnessa missed a lot of school and her grades slipped. She spent a lot of time in the nurse’s office. She acted out at home. In the middle of the school year, she tried to kill herself.
“I was so depressed and there were so many things going on. I just tried to stop it myself. I didn’t want to go on,” she said.
Her mother said she was hospitalized and received counseling. Jahnessa said dance class helped a lot.
Today, Jahnessa is thriving. She attends the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication, a charter school in New London that she and her mother said they felt from their first visit would be a place where the adults would do something about bullying. She bonded with a couple of girls and now, like other girls her age, she is on the phone all the time with friends. When she did have a problem, the school stepped in immediately. Jahnessa and another girl had a spat that began on Facebook that led to blows being exchanged in a bathroom. Her mother learned of the dispute while monitoring her daughter’s Facebook account.
“My mom called the school, and the school actually did something,” Jahnessa said. “We had to sit in the room with each other. A mediator said that in cyberspace things never go away. We both apologized to each other, and now we’re, like, friends.”
Bullying became part of the national discussion on teenage violence when two socially isolated boys committed the Columbine High School massacre in April 1999 but, here in southeastern Connecticut, it has been part of the conversation even longer.
Anne Wernau, a community educator for the Women’s Center of Southeastern Connecticut, started the “Violence is Preventable” program in 1992, when her youngest daughter was a sixth-grader in Waterford.
Today, the Women’s Center delivers the grant-funded program to schools in New London, Norwich, Bozrah, Groton and Griswold. The VIP program uses “Second Step” and “Steps to Respect” curricula from the Seattle-based Committee for Children. Lessons are tailored to elementary, middle and high school students.
At New London’s Winthrop School one afternoon, retired Norwich teacher Joyce Werden gave a lesson about contagious feelings to second-graders. She read Charlotte Zolotow’s “The Quarreling Book,” in which family members pass negative feelings to each other until their fun-loving dog turns the mood positive. She asked the class to draw a diagram with happy faces connected by arrows. She ended the lesson with friendly words from her puppet, Mr. Bushytail, and used a stick to tease soothing vibrations from a song bowl.
Winthrop School Principal Jaye Wilson said the 13-week program reinforces the school’s discipline plan and “pays in dividends” when the kids learn social skills and solve problems themselves. At this age, tattling, shoving and name-calling are a challenge.
“As educators, we don’t pay attention to getting-along skills until we hit middle school, and then the problem is really bad,” Werden said.
Don’t be a bystander
A few weeks later, Wernau and Kris Wraight from the Women’s Center conducted a lesson for sixth-graders at Groton’s West Side Middle School. They drew an imaginary line on the classroom floor and asked students to “cross the line” if they have experienced various types of bullying. All but two crossed when asked if they had been called bad names. All crossed when asked if they had ever seen someone teased. A few crossed when asked if they had been picked on because of religion, race or skin color. About two-thirds crossed when asked if they have ever stood by and watched someone being bullied and felt ashamed.
After class, 12-year-old Klay Ferguson said he has been bullied a lot by one student in particular, who calls him “fat” and “gay” and that the cruel words have left scars.
“I try to just ignore him, and the principal is trying to help me,” he said. “My mom says, ‘You’ll be OK.’ ”
His classmate, Michael Paige, said he has seen some of the bullying incidents and that he tends to be a bystander.
“I don’t think it’s that bad of a problem, but the few people who do it, they do it constantly,” he said.
During the lesson, both the adults and children acknowledged that everyone knows who the bullies are in their grade.
Around the state, grass-roots initiatives such as Norwich’s Bully-Busters group are urging young people to become “upstanders” rather than “bystanders” when they see bullying.
“In psychology, we call it diffusion of responsibility,” said Shirley, from NFA. “People who are not necessarily the agitators see it going on. The more people standing by, the more feeling there is that they are less responsible.”