Battling the bullies

Nonprofits work to build empathy, reduce trauma among harassed youth

Ray Washington needed an escape.

His mother worked three jobs to provide for him and his three siblings; so, he spent considerable time with his grandmother and cousins. Yet, some young family members found entertainment in taunting him.

They called Ray fat and spread rumors that he was gay. They even said that because of this, his father, who didn’t contribute to the family, didn’t love him. He retreated.

“I stayed more to myself as a child,” says Washington, a recent graduate of Ripley High School in Ripley, Tenn.

In middle school, he began opening up, joining clubs and playing football. But he found things got worse. The name calling and rumors had spread to his school. And Washington was getting into fights because he didn’t know how else to combat the provocations.

But, classmates weren’t the only ones who bullied Washington. Some teachers told him he would never amount to anything and that he wasn’t good enough to participate in the clubs he joined.

“Racism is a big issue where I am from. The teachers stereotype. They think black kids are not able to be successful,” says Washington, who was a West Tennessee Senior Level Rep for his high school at the Tennessee Association of Student Councils. He plans to study criminal justice with a concentration on courts and law at the University of Tennessee at Martin this fall.

Distressed there was no safe place for him, Washington cried himself to sleep at night and in eighth grade began cutting his arms. At school, he wore long sleeves or led people to believe the wounds were the result of football. By eighth grade, he was suicidal.

“Not feeling that love and care and feeling alone while you’re at home and then feeling alone at school, it was tough as a child,” Washington says.

His girlfriend, who he’s been seeing since eighth grade, made him promise to stop the cutting. A school social worker, who Washington calls his angel, helped him see light in his dark place.

“Victims are constantly being bashed for being hurt,” says Washington, who was a member of AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education). "Mental illness has become a big issue, but adults at school want to brush it off and say that these kids just want to get attention. Really, victims are too afraid to talk to someone because they say, ‘What if they tell on me? Then I might get locked up like a crazy person. I might be ignored or I might be pushed away.’”

For this reason, he says, the International Bullying Prevention Association’s upcoming conferences for teachers, community leaders and youth are essential.

“A student can’t learn if their mental state is not OK — if they cannot concentrate in class because a group of kids or adults are constantly picking on them while they are trying to work or eat lunch or walking in the hallway,” says Washington.

IBPA will hold a total of six conferences in 2018, three sponsored by Ford Motor Company Fund. Two regional conferences took place earlier this year.

“Bullying hurts people and is in direct conflict with Ford Fund’s mission to build stronger communities and make people’s lives better,” says Yisel Cabrera, manager, Government and Community Relations, Ford Motor Company Fund. “Our goal is to raise people up through improved access to basic needs, educational opportunities and resources that can enhance the quality of life.”

IBPA bullying prevention conferences address issues such as:
• Understanding the effects of bullying
• Triggers, hot buttons and difficult situations
• Social media, online cruelty and cyberbullying
• Interrupting and responding to bias
• Investigation skills
• Helping kids get along
• Empowering youth to create change and more

Understanding bullying

The IBPA tries to include youth at its conferences to help kids create bullying prevention programs rather than just having educators push the messaging, said IBPA Executive Director Lynn Lonsway.

IBPA began holding regional bullying conferences about five years ago to make them more accessible to community agencies, university and K-12 staff. Last year, the Ford Fund sponsored the first Bullying Prevention Award of $5,000 for the school district that excelled at strategies with interdisciplinary, clinical approaches.

Lonsway said one challenge to combatting bullying is merely defining the term. “Everybody has a different perception of what bullying is.”

While Lonsway has heard of some improvements related to bullying over the years, she says there’s still serious concern, and the number of calls and requests for support from parents and schools has only increased.

Amanda Gow, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Bend, Ore. (BGCB), said technology plays a role in bullying because people can hide behind their screens and it can extend beyond school hours into all hours of the day and night.

Youth who bully others and are bullied are at greater risk of:

• self-blame
• feelings of helplessness
• social withdrawal
• anxiety and depression
• higher chance of committing suicide
• substance abuse
• reduced success in school
• decreased earning potential
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The cost of bullying is high, Lonsway says. “Kids who are bullied miss an enormous number of days of school … and are at risk for mental health issues, depression or suicide,” she adds.

You’ll get teachers who will says ‘boys will be boys.’ But the relentless attack is dangerous for their health and well-being.”

BGCB is seeing skyrocketing rates of anxiety, depression and suicide in young people, Gow adds.

Breaking down bullying
• Bullying includes making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, excluding someone from a group
• Bullying is aggressive behavior that includes unwanted negative actions, such as physical or with embarrassing information, to control or harm another
• Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time
• Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength
• Bullying can include teasing because the person is different than them or their group
Sources: IBPA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Education

Taking a new tact

Washington, now 18, is still battling depression as anxiety increases over going to college in the fall. He says he’s still learning to say “this isn’t OK” to bullies without thinking about everything that happened as a child. But he still has his girlfriend, who is also his best friend and someone in whom he can confide.

“All kids need is someone who talks to them,” he says. “If you can’t get that at home, you look for it at school. If you can’t get it there, what are you supposed to do?”

BGCB, which provides a safe space for youth, uses an antibullying curriculum to work on positive reinforcement. The nonprofit’s curriculum provides kids with the skills, tools and resources to bring antibullying into their day-to-day lives.

"Middle school is stressful for everyone ... with their development and hormones," Gow says, adding that helping kids understand others are dealing with the same problems helps them realize they are not alone.

“They learn to build empathy. They start to create the change they want to see,” she adds. “The power is giving the young people the chance to say this isn’t OK among peer-to-peer relationships.”

There needs to be comprehensive and consistent messaging for staff to be on board for students who are struggling, says IBPA’s Lonsway, adding “We can change the tide in a lot of these schools.”

Her organization works a lot with restorative justice programs, those that repair the harm the bullies caused the victims.

“You get kids in a circle and get the target and the student who was acting aggressively, along with family members and staff,” Lonsway says. “They talk through the process with a facilitator. The person who was acting out learns empathy because they learn how the bullied child feels. This has been really effective in reducing bullying.”

Upcoming International Bullying Prevention Association conferences

Aug. 15 Building Healthy Schools in Palo Alto, Calif.
Aug. 17 Bullying Prevention through SEL and Kindness in Augusta, Maine
Sept. 15 Building Positive School Climate through Prevention in Oviedo, Fla.
Nov. 5-7 Putting the Pieces Together for Health Schools International Bullying Prevention Association Conference in San Diego, Calif.

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