In Britain, Peer Counseling Offers Some Answers to Bullying

Schoolgirl Nadine Lee knows what it is like to be bullied. When she started at the Acland Burghley School in North London three years ago, the now confident 14-year-old says she was mercilessly taunted by a group of girls in her class.

"It was mainly verbal abuse, although they also stopped me from doing my work," recalls Nadine, who is now a peer counselor with the school's Anti-Bullying Campaign (ABC).

"They would take my books, and they would accuse me of things," she says. "They also said a lot of things that were untrue about me behind my teacher's back."

After several months, the bullying soon reached the point where Nadine sought help. "I came in with my mum, and said that I couldn't take it anymore, and that my learning process was being interrupted," she says. "They talked with me at ABC, and helped me. I thought it was a really good scheme."

School bullying is becoming an increasingly worrisome problem in Britain. More than 80 percent of secondary school children have been involved in bullying, either as victims or perpetrators, according to research done by Keele University in Staffordshire.

Kidscape, the national child safety charity, has found a link between school bullying behavior and adult crime. Other organizations have found bullying contributes to underachievement, school truancy, and depression in children.

Several deaths have been attributed to bullying here. In the most recent dramatic case, five teens are scheduled to appear before a youth court in January in connection with the death of Kelly Yeomans. The 13-year-old from Allenton, Derbyshire, died in September from an overdose of painkillers. It is alleged that the youths bullied the girl.

But now some schools are taking action to halt bullying. Several successful new projects have emerged to discourage bullying before it appears and deal with bullies once they are known.

The four-year-old ABC program at the co-educational Acland Burghley school is one of the leading anti-bullying projects in the country. The enrollment of about 1,200 students comprises a mixture of middle- and working-class children of many races, including a significant percentage of kids from council estates - government-subsidized housing - in rough areas.

Visitors immediately notice the anti-bullying feel at the school. Signs to discourage bullying are posted in the hallways. "Someone Said: 'Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, But Names Will Never Hurt You,' But That's Not True," reads one.

"We try to create a positive atmosphere. The main word is respect," says Vavi Hillel, a teacher who helps coordinate the project. "You couldn't win with a program like this in a school unless you have respect, discipline, and a code of conduct."

Students who are bullied can talk to either a teacher or a peer counselor, where their complaints are dealt with in complete confidentiality unless their physical safety is threatened. The counselors have all gone through rigorous training, including workshops with psychotherapists.

Working together, counselors help their "clients" decide how to deal with the situation, which can involve finding solutions on their own, or holding sessions with the bullies to find a mutually acceptable one.

Lorenz Pash remembers his first time as a counselor. "I felt nervous. I didn't know what I was meant to be saying and what they expected of me, as I'm older than they are and I thought they'd look up to me," he says.

"I wanted to do some extra stuff in school, and through ABC I've made lots of new friends," adds counselor Lily McCallin. "I enjoy it, and one of the best things is that I can meet people of other ages I wouldn't ordinarily meet."

If peer counseling doesn't help, a plan of "punishment" may include an interview with the teacher, a letter home, or suspension. In extreme cases, bullies are expelled. The main message: Bullying will not be tolerated.

For Nadine, ABC helped her decide that the best solution was to leave her bullies behind. She switched to another class, where she has flourished. One of her tormentors has since left the school, and the other girls have become less aggressive.

"They were looking for status and power, as we were all new to the school and didn't have any ranking," Nadine explains.

As a peer counselor, Nadine believes her own experiences make her uniquely qualified. "I want to help people," she says, "that's the main reason I do it."

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