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Article of Interest - Bullying in Schools

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Bridges4Kids LogoSix Schools Plan to Rid Their Halls of Bullies
Researchers aim to change bullying culture.
by Daniel de Vise, Miami Herald, August 17, 2003
For more articles like this visit http://www.bridges4kids.org

 
It was the soundtrack to Jane Hershman's seventh grade: a relentless chorus of verbal abuse from a male classmate, in gym, at lunch, in the halls, most of it unprintable.

"I was taking this and taking this for so long," recalled Hershman, now 18, speaking from her Weston home. "And then one day I couldn't take it any more. I went into the office and complained. And my mom didn't know anything about it until today."

Hershman's old school, Tequesta Trace Middle in Weston, and five others around Broward County will launch a pilot program next month aimed at ridding themselves of bullies.

Professor Anne Rambo and colleagues at Nova Southeastern University want to change the culture that allows bullying to be tolerated and dismantle the code of silence that protects bullies and tongue-ties their victims. They consider their program unique because it aims to "bully-proof" the six schools through regular meetings with parents, teachers, and students who will be taught skills such as how to spot a bully, how to spot a victim and how to intervene.

"Right now what you have is a really widespread acceptance of bullying," said Rambo, an associate professor of family therapy at NSU. "Our overarching goal is to change social attitudes so that people who are witnessing bullying will speak up to defend the victim."

Schools in South Florida and around the nation have taken bullying much more seriously since 1999, when two teens who had been bullied killed 13 students then themselves at their high school in Columbine, Colorado.

Miami-Dade schools, for example, say they have found success with an anti-bullying effort built around counseling sessions geared to "bring awareness to the bully and make him or her aware that their behavior will not be tolerated," said district spokesman John Schuster in an e-mail.

But research suggests the only way to "bully-proof" a campus completely is to work with the entire community. That is the goal of the pilot program, Students United with Parents and Educators to Resolve Bullying, or SUPERB. If it catches on, researchers hope to expand it.

"There are a lot of programs out there," said Rambo of NSU. "What we learned is that the most effective program targets the whole social context."

South Florida hasn't had a Columbine-type incident. But Rambo cites the November stabbing death of a Piper High School student in Sunrise. Witnesses said Courtney Carroll died because he was a bully: Kern O'Sullivan, 17, leaped into a fight and stabbed Carroll to protect his cousin, allegedly a victim of Carroll's bullying.

And in 1993, 20-year-old Bobby Kent died in a Weston rock pit at the hands of seven acquaintances -- a crime that was chronicled in the 2001 film Bully.

In the short term, the pilot program will be aimed at North Side Elementary, Sunrise Middle and Fort Lauderdale High in Fort Lauderdale, Tropical Elementary in Plantation and Tequesta Trace Middle and Cypress Bay High in Weston. In the long term, directors of SUPERB aim for nothing less than transforming the way people think about a major societal problem.

Generations of adults have tolerated bullying, fearing that meddling only makes matters worse.

"I was bullied when I was in elementary school," recalled Nancy Hershman, Jane's mother. "My parents told me it was my own fault. They told me if I was bullied, it was my own problem. I sucked it up. What could I do?"

Research now suggests both bullies and their victims are more likely than others to experience depression and suicidal thoughts later in life. Former bullies tend to become felons and domestic abusers.

Girls bully, just like boys, and they start younger. Girls typically bully with words and play mind games of humiliation and exclusion, the research shows. Boys more commonly bully with fists and victimize people smaller and weaker than themselves.

The NSU researchers conducted focus groups with children and found that bullying starts as early as kindergarten, especially among girls, whose verbal skills tend to mature earlier. Bullying peaks in middle school and eases in high school, where it can become more subtle and nuanced. Victims of chronic bullying often become bullies themselves.

Broward's anti-bullying effort is the brainchild of Jeremy and Sharon Ring, a Boca Raton couple who seized on the idea while researching potential charitable investments.

'We started looking at family and friends who had addiction and had serious bouts of depression, and we started asking, `Why are these people the way they are?' " said Jeremy Ring, an early staffer of Yahoo.com who now leads a sports-marketing venture in Fort Lauderdale. "These adults were bullied when they were younger."

Researchers will spend an hour a week with every second-grade class at North Side Elementary; Rambo believes children that age are ideal for intervention because their behavior can be changed more easily.

At Tropical Elementary, researchers will focus on gifted students. They are considered particularly at risk for being bullied, because other children single them out for their differences. They often brood on the abuse.

Anti-bullying programs in the two middle schools will focus on steering children into interest groups and clubs -- after school at Sunrise Middle and before school at Tequesta Trace.

Work at the high schools will concentrate on recruiting volunteers to help younger students break the cycle.

"We're trying to make it cool to stand up for people who are being bullied," Rambo said. 

   

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