Greater Awareness Leads to Positive Change
by Charles Honey
When Tarena VanDyke was accused of bullying another student, it really hurt, she said.
“I’ve never seen myself as a bully,” said the Northview High School senior. “I hope I’m a nice person.”
But after watching a series of videos about bullying and reflecting on her behavior, Tarena realized she had not been nice to this other student. In fact, she had been downright mean.
“I was more self-conscious of what I was doing to her,” Tarena said of the sensitization training she went through last year. “I watched the video and said, ‘OK, let’s grow up a little bit. Let’s not try to make her feel horrible, because that’s not a good thing to do.’”
Through the school’s anti-bullying program, called BASIC Training, Tarena said she became aware of how all students can mistreat each other – and more willing to intervene when she sees it. She said she pulled one student away from another whom he’d pushed against a wall.
“It started to open my eyes,” she added. “I realized even if I’m not the bully, I can help the other person.”
While schools commonly employ strategies to curb bullying, some, like Northview High, also aim to educate those accused of bullying about the consequences of their behavior. Typically, such students don’t think of themselves as bullies, or realize how much their actions have hurt someone else, school officials say.
“I don’t like the word ‘bully,’” said Nicole Mulheisen, director of Northview’s Student Responsibility Center. “But I do believe kids are mean. Usually kids who bully other kids, if you search in their life, they’ve been bullied.”
They’re Not Trying to be a Bully’
Schools nationwide increasingly have worked to counteract bullying, spurred by concerns about teen suicide, violence and malicious use of social media. In Michigan, Matt’s Safe School Law requires school districts to have anti-bullying policies and to annually report all incidents and consequences. The Legislature late last year added cyber-bullying to the requirements.
Many districts in the Kent ISD have adopted programs to help prevent bullying and suicide such as “be nice.” developed by the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan. Several have hosted awareness-raising events such as Rachel’s Challenge, formed in response to the 1999 Columbine massacre. Many have formed their own awareness groups.
Such programs commonly invite bullied students to talk about their experience. But what about those accused of bullying? How do they feel, and what led them to bully someone? Several schools work with students on those questions, in addition to imposing consequences.
The issue starts with the usual idea of “bully.” Unlike the stereotypical brute extorting lunch money, most students accused of bullying, like Tarena, don’t see themselves that way, educators say.
“They’re not trying to be a bully,” said Katie Bush, dean of students at Kenowa Hills’ Central Elementary School. “A lot of kids, when you bring that to their attention, they often break down (in tears) and say ‘That’s horrible.’” Such students “often do a hurtful thing and don’t realize it’s hurtful,” Bush added.
This year, Bush has had students involved in bullying fill out questionnaires – after she consults their parents — stating what happened and what their part in it was. Students list 10 things that could count as bullying, which ones they have done and what they will do to prevent bullying in school. After Bush or Principal Cherie Horner review students’ responses, the students read them to the class.
Along with educating them about the effects of bullying, the assignment forces students to “come clean with themselves” about their behavior, Bush said. The exercise is not meant to shame them but to be a way of asking for help, she said. The papers must begin with “I have been a bully,” and end with a plea to help the student stop doing it.
“We approached it from an AA perspective,” Bush said. “You’re saying to the class, ‘This isn’t the person I want to be. If you correct me, I’m going to see it as help and not lash out.’”
The school has had fewer bullying incidents since the forms were introduced, Bush said, adding accused students have not repeated their behavior as far as she knows. Other approaches also have helped. Knights Lights, a Kenowa High School anti-bullying group, did an activity with fourth- and fifth-graders in which students acknowledged personal problems, such as divorced parents. Classmates responded with sign-language for “I love you.”
The activity raised awareness of the problems that can cause students to act out, and that “people really need support instead of the opposite,” Bush said.
More Emotional Hurts than Physical
In middle school, bullying can become more overt and deliberate by eighth grade. But many younger students still don’t know their behavior is bullying, said Kelly Amshey, assistant principal at East Rockford Middle School.
“We find a lot of those instances are just kids that are naïve, and make quick decisions they don’t think through well enough to realize the consequences for other kids,” Amshey said. Bullying behavior, she added, is usually more emotional than physical, such as “social exclusion, talking bad about somebody, and sharing private or embarrassing information.”
Her school employs an array of approaches to combat bullying and nurture a positive culture. Those include No Place for Hate, a national program of the Anti-Defamation League promoting respect for differences and challenging bigotry, and annual activities such as “Accept and Respect Week” featuring guest speakers.
For those who bully, a mix of consequences and reflection aims to change their behavior. A hallway display shows silhouettes of a boy and girl, both covered with bandage-shaped messages of repentance from students. “I am sorry for … calling you a name,” reads one. “Next time I will … say something nice.”
Students who are disciplined for mean behavior must fill out forms reflecting on what they did, how it hurt someone else and what they could do differently next time. These accompany consequences including a “silent lunch” isolated from other students, contacting parents, or suspension for more serious offenses.
“Rather than just doling out punishment, we’re trying to make sure they understand what their role was and how they could act differently,” Amshey said. “Most of those kids, when they understand they hurt someone else, do show remorse.”
A Long Fight, a Bad Year
Tarena VanDyke felt remorse for her bullying behavior, but also some anger about how it was handled.
The problem developed from a verbal fight with a friend that escalated. Tarena said she was angered by things the friend was telling others about her, and retaliated. “If I would see she was talking about me, I would do things that would irritate her, and I knew they would,” she said.
The fights were part of a “bad year” that often found her depressed and anxious, Tarena said. Sometimes she would eat lunch in the Student Responsibility Center, where students go for discipline problems, just to hide and “feel real sad,” she said. She often confided in Mulheisen, the SRC director, as “the one person I could come to and say, ‘I’m having a real bad day.’”
Tarena eventually earned a four-day suspension – the school calls it administrative leave — for allegedly pushing the girl, though she said it was accidental nudging in crowded hallways. She felt the suspension was unfair and reacted angrily, she admits. But Mulheisen said the action was necessary.
“It was time for Tarena to take a couple days off,” Mulheisen said, noting Tarena has “a strong personality.”
“Her emotions did get the best of her, at times,” Mulheisen said. “But do I think Tarena is a bully? No. Tarena is a great person. She has learned from all of this.”
Learning to ‘Let it Go’
Tarena agrees, after going through the BASIC Training process. She watched six videos on various kinds of bullying, made by other students in an Advanced Placement language class. She wrote a reflection on what it would have been like to be the victim, and what she would do differently if she found herself in a bullying situation again.
Going through that process, and talking heart-to-heart with Mulheisen, Tarena came to a new perspective not only on the bullying incident, but herself.
“Now I can talk like an adult to anybody and address how I’m feeling without tearing them down in return,” Tarena said. “I’m very aware of what I say now, how I say it and how it comes across.”
She is also more aware of how it feels to be bullied. Indeed, she said she was bullied mercilessly by one student in sixth grade, and often came home crying.
She said she now sees how her personality was contributing to the problem with her friend: “I don’t let things go. I have this little box of pettiness in me.” Now, she said, “I just let it go. I don’t hold grudges anymore.”
She also smiles more – especially after a friend told her she didn’t do it enough.
“I’m glad this happened to me,” including the suspension, she insisted. “I’m way more aware of what happened. I found who I am.”
Tarena looks forward to next fall, when she plans to enroll in Grand Rapids Community College. Eventually she wants to earn a degree in social work, qualifying her to work in the courts on behalf of neglected and abused children.
“I want to be able to help kids that don’t have a voice, that can’t stand up for themselves,” she said. “I want to be that one for them that they can trust.”
Tips for Parents
If you learn your child has been bullied at school, here are some things you can do:
1. Never approach the bully’s parents, as this is the school’s job
2. Find out what the bully is doing – actions, times, places – and document it
3. Obtain a copy of the school’s anti-bullying policy to see if it was violated
4. Meet with the principal, relate the facts in a calm way and ask what you can do together to stop the bullying
5. Write down what the principal says, and follow up with a thank-you letter recapping what the principal agreed to do
6. Follow up with your child to see if the bullying stops, and touch base with the principal
7. If the bullying continues, file a notice of harassment and if necessary contact the superintendent and school board