by Enid Arbelo and Meaghan M. McDermott
Some students sweat and hustle to earn a varsity letter to sew on their school jacket. Others campaign hard for class president. And some have simpler hopes — they just want to feel like they belong.
That’s what Dennis Smalley wanted, but it seemed he didn’t fit in anywhere. As a freshman at Brockport High School, he would dread catching the bus, navigating the halls and sitting through lunch.
Being the brunt of jokes was only half the problem. Often the worst part was not being noticed at all.
“I never really fit into the other clubs or they didn’t appeal to me,” Dennis said. “It seemed as though everyone was against me.”
He joined the wrestling team but soon realized that he felt more excluded than part of a group. “Even if you won, they wouldn’t congratulate you or give you a high-five,” said the now 17-year-old senior.
For millions of children across the nation, the lessons taught in school aren’t the kind parents hope for. Instead of reading, writing and arithmetic, some kids learn that school is a place to live in fear of sneak attacks, name-calling, being ostracized, having their possessions stolen or damaged or being unrelentingly mocked by their peers.
“Imagine walking into work every morning and knowing that your co-workers are going to shove you in the hallways, knock your papers out of your hands, call you names and pick on you for what you’re wearing,” said John Linney, an anti-bullying expert from Texas who spoke at a recent conference in Brighton. “That’s what kids experience. You can’t learn in an environment of fear, and you can’t focus when you’re in fear.”
Bullying, which often starts in elementary school, peaks in middle school and drops off in high school, is something that many students experience at least once, Linney said. According to the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center, an estimated 30 percent of U.S. students are involved either as a bully, the target or both.
New findings about the long-term effects on both bullies and victims have made addressing mean behavior a priority for educators.
School districts throughout the Rochester region have trained staffers and students, increased supervision and surveillance, enacted stricter policies with tougher consequences for violations, set up tip lines, boxes and Web sites, and held assemblies to address bullying.
Lawmakers have weighed in: Under New York state’s Safe Schools Against Violence in Education Act, bullying must be addressed in all grades along with civility, citizenship, personal responsibility, respect for others and courtesy.
In Brockport, Dennis Smalley said he has noticed there is more of an emphasis on team spirit and on creating a family atmosphere at the school. That emphasis has spread districtwide with the help of the Safe School Ambassadors program, which Dennis joined during his sophomore year. The program trains students to intervene when bullies attack, embarrass or isolate their peers just for kicks.
The ambassador program — also adopted by Rochester, East Irondequoit, Greece and Albion — is one way districts are handling a problem that roams their halls every day.
The problem is compounded by the consequences. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly 5 percent of all U.S. schoolchildren miss at least one day of class every month because bullies have made them afraid to go to school. That’s more than 28 million school days lost each year, said anti-bullying educator Kelly A. Zinna, a forensic psychologist and FBI-trained profiler from Colorado who also spoke at the Youth Emergency Services bullying prevention conference in Brighton.
“We still hear people say that it’s just ‘kids will be kids,’ or that it builds character, but bullying can create long-term psychological problems for both the perpetrator and the victim,” said Zinna, noting that the CDC estimates that 12 percent of bullying victims develop post-traumatic stress disorder, while 8 percent become suicidal.
Living in fear of bullies can cause anxiety, depression and physical problems, said clinical psychologist Elizabeth Meeker, program manager of Youth Emergency Services in Rochester. Bullied children “can start to manifest somatic complaints: headaches and stomachaches. And these are not made-up feelings. The kids are really feeling this.”
The stakes are high for the bullies, too, not only while they’re children but also as they become adults.
If a child is a bully by age 8, he or she is three times more likely to be convicted of a crime by age 30, Zinna said.
“And the bullying trait stays unless it’s addressed. A bully at age 8 will be a bully when they get to the workplace, and as adults they may move next door to you and raise little bullies.”
Addressing the problem is difficult because it comes in many different forms. Girls often experience bullying as social exclusion or isolation.
Marianne Macaluso sees it every day. She watches girls point, whisper and spread rumors, sometimes ganging up on one girl and excluding her simply because her clothing isn’t trendy or her boyfriend popular enough.
“I don’t fix their problems for them,” she said. “But I offer suggestions.”
Sometimes just stepping in and saying “that’s not cool” can help reduce tension, she said.
For 12-year-old Marianne, a student at Brockport Middle School, helping people fits with her beliefs. That’s why she became a Safe School Ambassador. To Marianne, it is a way to help her prepare for the future — she hopes to become an educator.
“It’s different for guys, but with girls you see more teasing,” said Griffin Maloney, 11, a sixth-grader at Willink Middle School in Webster.
“With the guys, it’s more taking someone’s agenda (day planner) or something and not giving it back.”
For some, the makeup of the school helps limit the instances of bullying.
Utsav Bansal, a 15-year-old sophomore at Brighton High School, said his school tries to make sure all students feel included and respected. One focus for Brighton is understanding cultural differences.
“The mix of culture really helps the school overall,” Utsav said.
Austin Hurwitz, a seventh-grader at Greece Odyssey Middle School who is a Safe School Ambassador, admits to having been a bully. He is known as an influential student, popular and likely to voice his opinion. Many students, like Austin, find that being popular often goes hand in hand with being a bully. It’s the norm to keep other students out of their clique, call them names or tease them because of the imbalance of power. But that has changed for Austin. The ambassador training taught him how it feels to be bullied. No one wants to feel that way — but many students say they have. It’s the knot in the stomach or the lump in the throat.
Defending themselves isn’t an option because they are too busy trying to avoid tears. So on the bus ride home, they practice a fake cough because they don’t want to have to go through it again tomorrow.
To stop the cycle, students like Austin are trained to help make everyone feel included and safe. Ambassadors intervene only in situations that occur between students in their own peer group. When they see mean-spirited teasing, they will use a technique such as distracting the bully.
“We are here to help, we are not here to take control,” Austin said. “But you don’t need to be an ambassador to help.”
Intervening is key
Experts say it’s the involvement of students such as the Safe School Ambassadors that holds the most hope for combating bullying. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 85 percent of bullying episodes are witnessed by someone else. If that onlooker is trained to intervene, bullying can be reduced, Linney said.
“When students look out for one another, the problem will be significantly reduced,” said Scott Steinberg, a counselor at Rogers Middle School in the Irondequoit district, which uses anonymous surveys and role-playing lessons with sixth-graders to raise awareness of what to do if they’re being bullied or see it happening to someone else.
In districts such as Penfield, Fairport, Webster and Wheatland-Chili, officials are offering anti-bullying training for teachers and students. Other districts, such as Gates Chili, incorporate bullying prevention into existing lessons about appropriate behavior and making good choices.
Mark Miele, principal at Scribner Road Elementary in Penfield and chairman of the district committee on bullying prevention, said the first step was making sure students and educators had a good definition of bullying, what harm it does and strategies for coping and prevention.
At the elementary level, the message is communicated in a language and form that is easily understood and students are getting the message, Miele said.
“Referrals have gone up significantly. That is proof to me that they are getting it. I don’t think there is more bullying at this school. … What’s different is that more of it is being reported.”
Some districts that have surveyed their students found that the most frequent type of bullying was name-calling and social exclusion. Students reported that they felt most safe from bullying in the classroom and least safe on the playground, in the lunchroom or getting to and from school.
Supervision has been beefed up in problem areas in districts such as Wheatland-Chili, where only six students out of more than 300 surveyed in grades 3 through 8 said bullying wasn’t a problem.
“The data was stunning,” said Assistant Superintendent Thomas Gallagher, also principal of T. J. Connor Elementary School. He said the staff didn’t expect that so many students in the small, rural district had been touched by bullying.
Rochester schools use character education, student ambassadors and the anti-violence Respect and Protect program. Later this year, the City School District will be the state’s first large urban district to survey students in grades 3 through 8 on the nature and prevalence of bullying. That information will be used to design ways to change the culture in school buildings through education and awareness programs for staffers and students, said Patti Northrup, youth development coordinator.
“By addressing this, there will be spillover effects that translate into kids making other good choices,” Northrup said. “We’re going to see a big change, but it’s a process and the results won’t come next week or next year. It’s about changing the culture of schools.”
It’s also about changes of heart.
“I’ve been picked on before, and I’ve picked on people,” said Michael Wagner, 11, an East Irondequoit Middle School sixth-grader after training last week as a Safe School Ambassador. “Now I’m sorry for that. (Talking about bullying) made me feel that I want to say I’m sorry and be friends with the people I picked on before.”
And it’s about making school a place where students can feel safe.
“I think, to start with, my goal was to become a part of something,” Dennis Smalley said of becoming a school ambassador in Brockport.
But that changed after a couple of years of putting his training into action. Now it is more about becoming an advocate for students who, like himself, may just be trying to find a place.
“It’s a chance to show them that the world is not against them.”