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Pulling together

Bullying can be stopped if the people who usually stand by and let it happen take a stand instead. That's the message antibullying projects are bringing to schools around the US.

By Marjorie Coeyman Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 24, 2000


At the end of her first day of sixth grade at a Massachusetts middle school, Lisa Sonbolian came home feeling happy and excited, looking forward to the new school year. On the second day, however, the boy sitting next to her told her, "You've got a big nose."

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Before she knew it, everyone else started joining in. "It got bad so quickly," Ms. Sonbolian, now a young adult, remembers. The next two years were nothing short of the ultimate adolescent nightmare. "From the minute I got on the bus, they would throw things, say things," she recalls. "Comments would be shouted out in class: Big Nose, Alien, Schnoz, Beakermobile - no one ever used my name anymore."

But perhaps most hurtful was the complete lack of caring intervention. "The teachers heard it and just ignored it," she says. Most of her friends deserted her. "It wasn't cool to hang around with someone who looked like me."

Sonbolian's story is hardly a new one. Picking on children who are different or vulnerable in any way has long been accepted by many as a sad reality of the schoolyard. But since the highly publicized school shootings at Columbine, and other violent incidents where being taunted by peers likely played a role, educators are less inclined to tolerate such scenarios.

As a result, schools around the United States are adopting curricula to teach both children and adults to respond to, not ignore, harsh teasing.

"Because of situations like Columbine, everyone can now see that when we look the other way [when children are bullied], we're looking for trouble," says Nancy Hollis, principal of the L.B. Merrill Elementary School in Raynham, Mass.

A new vulnerability to bullying?

Despite heightened attention to recent dramatic crimes, violent behavior among US students has actually declined in recent years, according to Youth Risk Behavior Surveys done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Between 1991 and 1997, the surveys show a 14 percent decrease in the number of students injured in a physical fight, and a 30 percent drop in the number of students carrying weapons.

But some experts worry that kids today are more emotionally fragile, and thus more vulnerable to bullying than ever before. Adolescents today share less one-on-one time with their parents than children of 20 years ago, and are more often exposed to images of violence, two factors that can render bullying more dangerous than ever, says Kevin Dwyer, senior adviser for prevention at the National Mental Health Association in Alexandria, Va.

"There are things kids do to each other that, if adults did, they'd be put in jail," Mr. Dwyer says. "We all need to be more aware of how deeply this can hurt individuals, how they can carry it into their lives as adults."

More states develop programs

Massachusetts has perhaps made the biggest splash by setting aside $1 million in grants to help six elementary schools implement two-year "bullying prevention" programs. But schools in a number of other states - including Texas, Georgia, New York, and Connecticut - have also been experimenting with programs to break the code of silence that often surrounds the cruelty that children can display toward one another.

One of the first walls of resistance to be broken through in dealing with the problem is the reluctance of many adults to act against bullying. They also often fail to take it seriously, says Nancy Mullin-Rindler, developer and co-author of Quit It - one of the curricula adopted in Massachusetts - and a consultant to the state on the project.

"One of the most common myths we encounter doing training is that this is normal, that 'kids will be kids,' " she says. "We hear people say, 'Oh, lighten up.' Some even think bullying builds character."

That's why part of the Massachusetts program focuses on training for all adults who come into contact with children during the school day - including bus drivers, janitors, lunch monitors, and parents - in an effort to heighten sensitivities about the dangers of allowing such behavior to continue unchecked.

Engaging the bystanders