October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and the AFT is stepping up with millions of others to say "No!" to bullying and "Yes!" to the many ways we can address this troubling issue. "We know the dreadful consequences of bullying, and we can no longer excuse it as 'kids will be kids,'" says AFT President Randi Weingarten. "It's time for everybody to share responsibility to stop this epidemic."
She is in good company: The Cartoon Network kicked off its annual Stop Bullying: Speak Up campaign with celebrities speaking out against bullying, Spider-Man and Captain America are teaming up with Stomp Out Bullying, the Bully Project continues to distribute literature and curriculum for educators, the Peace Project is inspiring young people with awards for work that promotes harmony, and the list goes on.
Out of the dark
Once secretive and shameful, the schoolyard taunting, teasing and violence that are the hallmarks of bullying are now common topics of conversation among educators. News headlines and anti-bullying campaigns have raised awareness, championed victims and spurred a movement to make aggressive, "mean" behavior unacceptable. There are even cases where anti-bullying action is cool: A recent North Texas homecoming queen, for example, gave her crown to a friend who had been bullied.
And a team of Michigan middle school football players held back at the goal line so their learning disabled teammate—a child who in many other places would be the victim of bullying—could score the touchdown himself.
But although much progress has been made, millions of children are still bullied every year, sometimes mercilessly, and the tragic stories continue to pile up. Teens, and sometimes pre-teens, have committed suicide, and bullying is sometimes cited as one factor that pushes them over that edge. Other children are simply miserable in school.
Take the child coming through the food line in Culloden, W.Va., whose classmate told her, "I hate you," and then, much to the cafeteria worker's dismay, added that the cafeteria worker handing them their lunch hated her, too. Or the girl who was teased on a school bus in Oregon for the way she was dressed. In both cases, AFT members took the children aside to explain that bullying was not acceptable, and then continued to monitor the situations.
At another school in Oregon, children who came to school in dirty uniforms—perhaps because their families couldn't get to a laundromat, perhaps because they were homeless—were being bullied about how they smelled. The staff decided to wash the uniforms on campus so everyone could come to school clean—and so those who engaged in bullying behavior would leave everyone alone.
There are many reasons children are bullied. In a recent AFT survey, members reported that "girl drama" is one of the most hurtful, along with homophobia, making fun of learning disabilities and body size, outing family problems and discriminating against children intra-racially (based on how light or dark someone's skin might be). Gang influence is a serious and potentially violent problem in some areas. Cyberbullying is a pervasive issue, too, and difficult to address.
According to a White House report, nearly a third of all school-age children in the United States are bullied each year—about 13 million students. As a result, many of these children are so distracted by the prospect of being bullied that they begin to falter academically. Some may avoid school altogether, escape through drugs and alcohol, or fall into depression. Similar issues surface for adults who are bullied in the workplace, where 48 percent of workers report either witnessing bullying or experiencing bullying directly.
First, understand the problem
Bullying is often associated with the image of a beefy boy pounding his fist at a skinny kid and stealing his lunch money. However, bullying can manifest itself in many different ways—none of them good.
The AFT defines bullying as "intentional, negative and aggressive behavior that is repeated over time and exists in a relationship where there is an imbalance of power." It may be physical (hitting, kicking, spitting or pushing), but it can also be verbal (taunting, malicious teasing, name calling or threatening) or psychological (spreading rumors, manipulating social relationships, or promoting social exclusion, extortion or intimidation). All of this transfers to the Internet, with a cyberbullying tool set of text messaging, email, Facebook and other forms of social media.
But even with a good definition, bullying can be hard to detect. Despite the light that's been shed on the problem, bullying still takes place in the shadows, so to speak—most often, during the least supervised moments of a child's school day, such as in the cafeteria, hallways or schoolyard. Those victimized by bullying are frequently embarrassed or reluctant to speak up for fear of retaliation.
Educators say that one of their biggest challenges is to get children to tell an adult about the bullying. One AFT member, a food service worker, says that she tells children to "let an adult know" if they are bullied, rather than to "tell an adult," because of the link between "telling" and "tattletale."
In the workplace, bullying follows similar lines: Fear of retaliation is a big factor. And intimidation is a favorite bullying tactic, including not just name calling but also exclusion, intimidation, spreading rumors and public humiliation. Bullying can also make a person physically ill—and miserable enough to want to quit an otherwise satisfying job.
What to do?
Studies and awareness campaigns are important, but what should you do when you find yourself sitting across from a tearful, frightened child who has been the victim of bullying?
The first thing to do when you see an incident is to intervene. Hear both sides of the story—in private. Check in with the students after the incident and fill in anyone else who comes in contact with them, such as parents, caregivers, and other teachers and support staff, including paraprofessionals, cafeteria personnel, custodians and bus drivers. Be visible, get to know your students, call them by name and help them understand that you are available to listen and help.
It's also important to create opportunities for students to report incidents anonymously and safely, and to guide them toward sharing information with adults. Put up anti-bullying posters, hold assemblies and offer community-building activities that create bonds among different groups of children. And check out Share My Lesson, the AFT's free online collection of teaching resources, for other ideas. The site's bullying prevention collection includes role-playing cards that help children practice empathetic behavior, strategies to prevent name-calling in physical education classes, lesson plans involving literature, and toolkits for educators to use to prevent bullying or address it when it occurs.
At Terrytown Elementary School, which is located just outside of New Orleans, students recite a bully-free pledge every morning to create a positive, supportive culture: "I am a kid against bullying, and I will: Speak up when I see bullying. Reach out to others who are bullied. Be a friend whenever I see bullying." In Albuquerque, N.M., parents and community members, as part of the district's broader community school strategy, stand outside their homes along the route children walk to school to ensure safe passage; in other communities, this show of solidarity could help keep bullies at bay.
In another school, paraprofessionals in special education classes make a point of using classroom visits to introduce their physically disabled and sometimes medically fragile students to students in "regular" classes. The practice has created cross-classroom bonds, with children from the regular classes requesting to play with their new friends at recess.
On a larger scale, the United Federation of Teachers in New York City has established a hotline as part of its Be BRAVE Against Bullying campaign; the hotline provides support and suggestions on what to do and who to report to at the school level when a bullying event occurs. The union also offers workshops all year, along with an annual anti-bullying conference and fair.
On a statewide level, legislation such as Kansas' anti-bullying statute can require that schools have anti-bullying policies in place that include staff training and curriculum supports. On a smaller scale, school boards can pass resolutions and schools can adopt pledges. A recent groundbreaking policy in Houston included school employees in a public school anti-bullying policy, with language in the employee manual that protects staff from workplace bullying.
In fact, that extension to workplace bullying is vital to changing the culture of bullying in schools. If adults bully one another, children will do the same. But if school colleagues—from the superintendent and principal to the secretaries, classroom and resource teachers, paraprofessionals, custodians and cafeteria workers—treat one another with respect and work in a supportive team environment, they will not only be modeling kindness, they will also have more positive interactions with their children.
That, more than anything else, will create a culture of kindness—and bury bullying for good.
[Virginia Myers/top photo by Cara Metz, bottom photo by Miller Photography, courtesy United Federation of Teachers]