KETR

In Bullying Programs, A Call For Bystanders To Act

Mar 30, 2012
Originally published on March 30, 2012 5:53 am

The documentary Bully opens in theaters Thursday, and the heated controversy over the appropriate rating for the film has frustrated many schools hoping to use it as a teaching tool.

Administrators have struggled to find effective ways to help curb bullying in their schools in recent years, and a growing number of bullying prevention programs have emerged to meet the demand.

Many schools started by cracking down on bullies, then later focused on propping up victims, with the hope of helping to make them "bully-proof." Now, they have shifted their efforts to people who witness bullying.

Fostering 'Upstanders'

"A few years back, I used to be a bystander," panelist Lee Tu, a student from Allston, Mass., tells the audience during a recent anti-bullying conference sponsored by Harvard University. Tu says she saw a fellow student "called a whore ... and I didn't really do anything."

But for most kids, it's a big leap to imagine they shoulder any blame for doing nothing when they see bullies in action.

"If they're not the person shoving someone in a locker, or they're not online spreading rumors, they think they are not part of the problem," says Marc Skvirsky, vice president of the organization Facing History and Ourselves.

Skvirsky helped create a study guide to accompany the Bully documentary. The guide focuses both on bystanders and what many anti-bullying campaigners call "upstanders": kids and adults who stand up to bullying when they see it.

"We really want students to really reflect on their choices and the consequences of indifference," Skvirsky says.

Erica Newell works with the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, or MARC, which provides schools free or low-cost programs aimed at combating bullying. Today, she's teaching middle-schoolers in the town of Medway about the power of bystanders.

Bullies are much like performers, she tells the crowd. Their audience, she says, are bystanders, "just sitting there watching, right? So they're not saying, 'fight, fight, fight,' — but they're also not doing anything."

"So who are they helping?" she asks. "The bully, right?"

Newell tells kids that she gets why they don't want to stand up to bullies. She understands they don't want to make themselves a target. But, she says, there are less risky options.

"Don't join in. It's OK to turn around and walk away," she says. "You don't have to be BFFs or sit together at lunch all the time. Something as simple as that is showing the victim support."

Changing Perceptions Of What's Cool

After the assembly, seventh-grader Carly Hundertmark says a friend once offered such a gesture to help her when she was bullied.

"She would always call me over to a different table and find [a] way out of the situation," Carly says. "And she was actually the one who told my mom, 'cause I didn't feel comfortable about it."

Part of what made it hard to talk about was that the bully was one of Carly's friends.

It was the same for Shannon McHugh. "In the movies, it's always a big tough guy who picks on the little nerd. But, it was my friend," Shannon says.

"We would all joke around ... but then, she kind of took it to the next level and it started getting meaner," she says. "And she took it to the next level, and the next — and she just turned and bullied all of us."

Westfield State University professor Elizabeth Stassinos says that's often the case. Kids often play both roles of bully and victim, and it's often hard to know who is engaging in aggressive or bullying behavior. That's why, she says, just cracking down on bullies is ineffective and why peer intervention is key.

"Kids themselves need to create new social norms where bullying is not cool, and create an environment where the cool way of dealing with bullying ... is for one kid to say to the kid who's aggressive, 'Hey, why are you hating on so-and-so all the time?'

"It's very much like drunk driving," Stassinos says. "It's more effective when a student takes the keys away from another student."

Making it cool to stand up to bullies may sound like a tall order, but it begins to seem a little less impossible when stars like Lady Gaga get into the game.

At Harvard last month, when she announced her new Born This Way Foundation aimed at combating bullying, she told kids it's on them to change their school culture.

"There is no law that can be passed," the pop star told the students. "I wish there was, because you know I'd be chained naked to a fence somewhere trying to pass it."

Indeed, some people feel that laws can do more harm than good. New Jersey recently passed the nation's strictest anti-bullying law, leaving schools with an 18-page "compliance checklist." One school made headlines for investigating a second-grader who said another kid had cooties.

Harvard education professor Rick Weissbourd says it's easy for adults to overreact.

"There's an allergy to kids experiencing any adversity," he says. "[But] we don't want adults intervening every time a kid teases another kid. We want kids to be able to learn how to develop coping strategies, and learn how to deal with conflict in constructive ways."

Not All Programs Created Equal

The MARC program spends nearly as much time defining what bullying isn't as what it actually is, but not all programs do. In fact, some experts say it's a bit like the Wild West in the fast-growing industry of bully-prevention programs. Anyone can peddle anything — and they do.

Massachusetts anti-bullying campaigner Joe Wojick, also known as "Joe the Biker," travels schools with his tough persona, rap songs and his motorcycle jacket to tell his story.

"When I was your age, they called me 'yubbie,'" he tells a group of students.

They may be compelling tales told with the best intentions, but Stassinos says schools should not be investing in programs that are not research-based.

"It's often a feel-good experience, but it's a one-off event, and it doesn't change the climate," she says. "It seems just like a horrible waste of money to fund programs that aren't proven to work."

Stassinos says the evidence is clear about what works: the slow and tedious task of changing kids' hearts and minds about what's cool — and what's not, and convincing them to speak out against aggressive behavior.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, the whole ratings controversy over "Bully" has been frustrating for some schools. They were hoping to use the film as a teaching tool. NPR's Tovia Smith gives us a look at some of the latest efforts to curb bullying.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Anti-bully programs have grown a lot in recent years. Schools went from cracking down on bullies to propping up victims to make them bully-proof. And now…

LEE TU: Hi, my name is Lee. I used to be a bystander.

SMITH: At a Harvard-sponsored conference, Boston student Lee Tu is one of a panel of kids all focused on the role of those who witness bullying.

TU: She was called a whore and I didn't really do anything about that.

SMITH: To most kids, it's a big leap that they should shoulder any of the blame for doing nothing.

MARC SKVIRSKY: If they're not the person shoving someone in a locker or they're not online spreading rumors, they think they're not part of the problem.

SMITH: Marc Skvirsky with Facing History and Ourselves helped write a study guide to go with the film "Bully" that focuses on bystanders and what they call upstanders.

SKVIRSKY: We really want kids to reflect on their choices and the consequences of indifference.

TU: So we like to say that the bully, they're almost like a performer, right?

SMITH: Erica Newell of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, or MARC, teaches middle schoolers in Medway, Massachusetts about the power of bystanders.

ERICA NEWELL: They're just sitting there watching, right? So they're not saying fight, fight, fight, but they're also not doing anything, right? So who are they helping?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The bully.

NEWELL: The bully, right?

SMITH: Newell tells kids she gets why they don't want to stand up to bullies and make themselves a target. But, she says, there are less risky options.

NEWELL: Don't join in. It's OK to turn around and walk away. So we don't have to be BFFs that(ph) sit together at lunch all the time. Something as simple as that is showing the victim support.

SMITH: After the assembly, seventh-grader Carly Hundertmark says her friend offered a small gesture like that to help her when she was bullied.

CARLY HUNDERTMARK: She would always like call me over like to a different table or whatever and just like find one way to get me out of the situation. So she said to me - she was actually the one who told my mom, 'cause I didn't feel comfortable about it.

SMITH: Part of what made it hard to talk about was that the bully was one of her friends.

MIDDLE SCHOOLERS: It was the same for Shannon McHugh.

SHANNON MCHUGH: We would all joke around, but then she kind of took it to the next level and it started getting meaner, and she just turned and bullied all of us.

SMITH: That's often the case, says Westfield State University Professor Elizabeth Stassinos. And kids often play both roles of bully and victim. That's why peer intervention is key, she says - kids themselves need to create new social norms where bullying is not cool, and calling it out is.

ELIZABETH STASSINOS: The cool way of dealing with bullying now is for one kid to say to them, hey, why you hating on so and so all the time? Right? It's very much like drunk driving - it's more effective when a student takes the keys away from another student.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, Lady Gaga.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SMITH: It begins to seem a little less impossible when the likes of Lady Gaga get into the game.

LADY GAGA: I love you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SMITH: At Harvard last month, she told kids it's on them to change their school culture.

GAGA: There is no law that can be passed. I wish there was, because you know I'd be chained naked to a fence somewhere trying to pass it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: Indeed, to some passing laws can cause more harm than good. New Jersey recently passed the nation's strictest, leaving schools with an 18-page compliance checklist. One school made headlines for investigating a second-grader who said another kid had cooties.

Harvard education Professor Rick Weissbourd says it's easy to overreact.

RICK WEISSBOURD: You know, there's an allergy to kids experiencing any adversity. And, you know, we don't want adults intervening every time a kid teases another kid.

NEWELL: All right, so who can tell me, is this picture showing fighting or bullying? Yup...

SMITH: The MARC program spends nearly as much time defining what bullying isn't as they do what it is, but other programs, not so much. It's a bit of the Wild West in the fast-growing industry of bully-prevention programs. Anyone can peddle anything - and they do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Joe Wojick, all tough with muscles and motorcycles, travels to schools to tell his story.

: When I was your age, they called me Yubbie.

SMITH: They may be compelling tales told with the best intentions, but Elizabeth Stassinos says schools should not be investing in programs that are not research-based.

STASSINOS: It's often a feel-good experience, but it's a one-off event, and it doesn't change the climate.

SMITH: Stassinos says what works best is the slow and tedious task of trying to change kids' hearts and minds about what's cool and what's not.

Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.