'Kindness Workshop' criticized for making students vulnerable to bullying

Parents in West Allegheny, Pa., say the anti-bullying workshop had the opposite effect of that intended.

Mel Evans/AP/File
People hold candles as they gather for an anti-bullying rally, Oct. 12, in Sayreville, N.J.

A workshop promising to deliver on anti-bullying measures recently had the exact opposite effect at a Pennsylvania middle school, parents say.

In the so-called Kindness Workshop, students at the West Allegheny Middle School in Imperial, Pa., were asked highly personal questions about themselves and their families that parents say exposed them to ridicule from their classmates. The questions varied, but included asking the students about their religious backgrounds and their family finances.

The program was intended to promote empathy among students, a goal set by many schools across the United States as faculty and students strive to reduce bullying both on and off campus. The dispute over the Kindness Workshop highlights one of the key challenges of any anti-bullying program: getting kids to buy in.

One parent told local news outlet Action News 4 in Pittsburgh that the questions were intrusive, and that her daughter was so disturbed by the questions that she did not want to go back to school the next day.

“[The questions asked] Are you, or do you know anyone, that is gay, bisexual, transgender, or lesbian? Do either one of your parents have a drug or alcohol problem?” the parent said. “This is the one that throws me over the edge. Do you have financial issues at home? Do your parents ever worry about providing you with the essentials?”

Students who participated in the workshop were also required to wear masks and reveal details about themselves while standing in a circle of their peers.

“That’s a violation, a huge violation,” another parent told Action News 4. “That’s very personal stuff. Eighth graders have a hard time right now. It’s a crazy world. They get bullied in school. They get bullied on social media.”

Despite the outcry from parents, school officials have defended West Allegheny superintendent, Jerri Lynn Lippert.

“The intent of the workshop was to build a positive school culture and was not intended to offend any students,” Dr. Lippert said an emailed statement to Action News 4.

Bullying-prevention workshops have seen an increase in popularity in recent years. Experts say one of the most effective factors in ensuring program success is getting students to buy into the concept.

“Overall, the best initiatives are a partnership," as Stan Davis, who runs the Stop Bullying Now initiative, explained in a previous interview with The Christian Science Monitor, "A true collaboration understands which things kids and adults do best.”

Many anti-bullying programs around the country have also taken the step of training students how to be the first responders when a bullying incident occurs. Studies have shown that bullying dissipates more quickly when someone intervenes.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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