Schools Plan to Rid Their Halls of Bullies
Researchers aim to change bullying culture.
by Daniel de Vise, Miami Herald, August 17, 2003
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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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