A year ago, Tiara, then a seventh grader at Cloonan Middle School in Stamford, Conn., was a bully. “I would go crazy,” she recalls. “I would get mad and say bad things and yell at kids.” Not surprisingly, Tiara was in the principal’s office at least once a week.
Then, six months ago, Kelly, an eighth grader at Cloonan, began mentoring Tiara. “I joined the environmental club with Kelly, and we worked together in the school garden. We talked about everything,” says Tiara.
Tiara’s behavior changed dramatically. She stopped bullying other students, and she hasn’t been in the principal’s office in months. Her grades, once C’s, are now A’s. Student-to-student mentoring was the key in her case, and this underused strategy could help many more kids like the Tiara of old.
Bullying is pervasive in American schools. According to the National School Safety Center, 90 percent of the students in grades four through eight report being victims of bullying. The growing use of cell phones, Facebook, and other social media has taken bullying beyond the playground so that it’s hard to escape from it. More than half the students in grades 7 through 12 have been bullied online, according to i-SAFE Foundation, and most of these young people don’t tell their parents or teachers.
No surprise: Bullying affects attendance, grades, and graduation. Each day an estimated 160,000 students miss school for fear of being bullied, and 10 percent of students who drop out of school do so because of repeated bullying.
Most troubling is the rising number of suicides by teens who were bullied – according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, now about 4,400 students every year.
So what can be done to prevent this harmful problem in America’s schools? While most anti-bullying initiatives rely on teachers and counselors to serve as watchdogs, one strategy engages students themselves – peer mentoring.
Schools such as Tiara’s that have initiated such programs – where older students mentor younger peers – are not only seeing sharp decreases in bullying incidents, but also gains in grades and attendance.
Tiara and Kelly’s school has declared itself a “bully-free zone.” By mentoring each other, students raise awareness of bullying and engage one another as part of the solution. Strategies include anti-bullying pledges, anti-bullying poster contests, and “bullying boxes” where students can anonymously report incidents.
Cloonan Middle School students recently conducted a survey of seventh graders about these efforts and found that while 63 percent of students had been bullied at school in the past, only 40 percent were bullied in the current school year. Fifty-nine percent reported that the bullying situation at school had improved this year.
Here’s what other schools in our organization, College For Every Student, are discovering about mentoring and how it can decrease bullying and – ultimately – help students move toward college. These programs can:
Create positive peer pressure. Peer mentoring raises standards for student behavior among the students themselves and erodes student apathy about negative behaviors.
Teach civility. When students are responsible for their peers, they learn to treat one another with respect. At STARS Prep Academy in Harlem in New York City, a group of middle school boys has created a program that helps them become gentlemen. The student-created curriculum focuses on manners, proper dress, and respectful treatment of girls.
Help students take ownership of solutions. At Burton Elementary School in Erie, Pa., mentors have created bullying books with suggestions on how to respond to bullying.
Create advocates. Bullying happens when adults aren’t watching. Mentors watch their mentees in the hallway to make sure they aren’t being bullied, or bullying other kids. Students become advocates for each other.
Build confidence. Mentors feel good about themselves when they can help other students improve academically. It gives them a sense of responsibility and accomplishment, and develops important leadership skills.
Students themselves are a vital part of the answer to bullying. By leveraging student awareness, leadership, and compassion, peer mentoring programs can replace the culture of bullying with a culture of caring.
Kelly was the answer for Tiara. Because of Kelly’s leadership and compassion, Tiara is no longer a bully. She’s an A student with a bright future. In fact, Tiara plans on becoming a lawyer and she’s now mentoring a sixth grader who “reminds me of myself….”
Rick Dalton is the president and CEO and Virginia Wilkins is the director of mentoring at College For Every Student, a national nonprofit that helps underserved students in 22 states get to college.