Picture this: a middle school student comes into my classroom in the fall and says, “I can’t take it anymore.” When I ask what the problem is, the student tells me that the stress of being bullied is making life miserable and that thoughts of ending it are starting to grow.
During the 2011/2012 school year, I was the teacher advisor to George Street Middle School’s anti-bullying program called Beyond the Hurt. In this article, I will share the empowering and joyful experiences I had with a group of young people who are some of the most extraordinary people I have ever met. They are living proof that students can help change a school culture and can directly have an impact on the bullying dynamic.
The Beyond the Hurt group was made up of twelve executive members as well as about thirty more students who, although not on the executive, made large contributions of time and energy to our Beyond the Hurt program over the course of the school year. Some of these students had been targeted in the past by bullies and wanted to empower themselves and others to make positive changes at their school; others had been bystanders, witnessing bullying and at times feeling helpless to do anything about it. This group wanted to empower themselves so that in the future they could make more informed and positive choices when it came to witnessing bullying. Finally, there were students who were admitted bullies, but who wanted to start the new school year off differently by sharing their experiences with other students and learning better ways of coping with stress and anger management.
Who would ever have thought that this group of very different personalities, backgrounds and experiences could come together to make such a huge impact on the student body at George Street, other schools within the school district, university students, teachers and even government officials? Well, I did and they did, and that was the first step, our rally cry for those who doubted us. Together, we were going to make a difference and help young people learn that bullying is not acceptable no matter the reason and will not be tolerated at our school or in our community. Equally, we were going to help young people help themselves.
In September the students selected for the program came in for two days of intensive anti-bullying training, with adult facilitators from the Canadian Red Cross Beyond the Hurt program educating them, but also learning from them. Over the two days the students, who had played different roles in bullying situations, discussed their personal experiences and quickly realized that the first step in changing the bullying dynamic was talking about it and empathizing with one another.
Who smiles, laughs and looks fine from the outside but feels alone, depressed and afraid on the inside? If you think the answer is an estimated 20% of Canadian teenagers, you would be correct. In fact, the Canadian Mental Health Association statistics show a staggering 3.2 million Canadian youth between the ages of 12 and 19 are at risk of developing depression. As well, suicide is among the leading causes of death in 15 to 24-year-old Canadians, second only to accidents. And one factor that can cause depression and suicide in Canadian teens is bullying.
They did such activities as role-playing, a power game with cards (the higher the card a person had the more power they had) and a stepping forward activity, where each time a student answered yes to a bullying-related question (e.g., Have you ever bullied or gossiped with someone about a friend?) he or she stepped forward one step. By the end of the questions, most students were at the other end of the room and they realized that they had a lot in common. The training then was a catalyst to getting them to open up and share their feelings in a safe and comfortable environment.
From there, students went on to do radio public service announcements, one-hour talk show interview programs, and interviews in print media, all with the desire to get the message out that bullying can end and that the voices of youth are the key. They made presentations to their school peers, showing them how to intervene appropriately in a bullying situation, what signs to look for when someone is being bullied, how to report bullying, etc. As they presented to each class, it became evident that they were reaching their peers in a way that I never could. With me, it would seem more like a lecture—just another adult telling them yet again what to do, or not to do. With their peers presenting, students saw first-hand that people at the school cared about them and their situations and were willing to help guide them to positive and effective solutions. Even when presenting to adults (they presented to my entire school district on cyber-bullying, to university students training to be educators, to parents on how to monitor children on the Internet, and to our Minister of Education and his advisory committee) they did so with confidence, complete honesty and passion. It was especially the latter two qualities that I think changed the minds of some people and really made them connect with this group of students.
One of the most effective sessions this group had was with our staff of teachers. The students came up with some great ideas on how staff could make themselves more approachable and make it easier for students to report bullying, particularly the kind that is hidden in locker areas, the cafeteria and in changing rooms.
- They talked about teachers having drop boxes in their classroom where students could deposit the details of a bullying incident. Alternately, students could pass a note to their teacher and the teacher could address the issue when there was time.
- They suggested that students go in pairs when reporting a bullying incident so that they feel more comfortable and less intimidated.
- Often students who report bullying are called “snitches” by their peers. With that in mind, they suggested that the school have a “Snitches are heroes day” where students could learn the difference between telling on someone just to get them in trouble as opposed to reporting incidents that really help other people.
- They proposed the idea of having members of their group talk with students who had been guilty of bullying behaviour, with the idea of helping them open up and reduce their stress. They recognized that they couldn’t give advice from a professional’s perspective but that they could lend an ear to someone in need and tell him or her how they cope with the stress and anger that they have in their own lives.
As a result of the great work these kids have been doing at George Street, there are more students willing to come forward and report bullying. Often the bullying does not even need to be reported to school staff, as students have learned to intervene and help each other before the bullying gets to the point where it requires staff intervention. In fact, I am proud to say that as a result of their hard work, George Street is considered by many to be a model in the province of New Brunswick of how to best address the important issue of school-related bullying.
I have written about some of the amazing things a relatively small group of students did over the course of one school year to help address school bullying. This group of vastly different personalities and skill-sets was able to accomplish a great deal in a short amount of time and provide conclusive evidence that if every student body puts their mind to it, they can have the same results. No, bullying is not going away and is still an issue at George Street, but at least students are helping to make the school a place where more students look forward to coming in the door every day with smiles on their faces. After all, every student has the right to learn and to be happy while doing so.
Picture this: the same student who met with me early in the fall decided to become a member of Beyond the Hurt. As I write this, I can remember another visit in June—this time the student’s eyes were smiling, the tone of voice joyful and strength was apparent. We only spoke for about five minutes that afternoon but the conversation will be remembered by me for a lifetime. When I said that I hoped the student would continue with Beyond the Hurt next year, the response was a laugh and the words, “It saved my life, so why wouldn’t I?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bruce Van Stone
Bruce Van Stone teaches at George Street Middle School in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Nov/Dec 2012 issue.