Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working hard with a fantastic team to prepare for our pilot launch of A Culture of Civility, a comprehensive bullying prevention program for 6-12 schools. I’ve long been passionate about finding more innovative and high-impact ways to address bullying in schools for two main reasons.
First, I was bullied heavily in late elementary school and middle school, so I know first hand the short-term and long-term effects bullying can have on young people. Second, as a diversity and inclusion consultant, I’ve seen too many times with the way that bullying prevention approaches (whether formal or informal) treat bullying as if it is some sort of general problem requiring general solutions.
Quite to the contrary, bullying is a specific problem of student diversity that varies drastically from school to school. In some schools, students might be more likely to be targeted for their race or their sexual orientation. In other schools, students might be more likely to be targeted for their ability or disability. Still in other schools, students might be targeted for their weight or body image or family income.
The point here is that there cannot be a “one size fits all” approach to bullying. It does not and cannot exist! Schools need to design school-specific interventions to their school-specific manifestations of bullying that bring the entire community on board.
“But what can one person do?” The Story of Audrey
While it can also be empowering to consider what it would actually take to end bullying in schools, this understanding of bullying can unfortunately leave some folks feeling stuck. While it’s true that the most powerful change must come through concerted community organizing and effort, that doesn’t mean that one person can’t have a powerful effect on the problem of bullying in her or his school.
Whenever I hear this discouragement, I immediately jump into the story of Audrey.
When I was in 7th grade, I was bullied heavily for a lot of reasons. I was bullied for the way I look (I have a big mouth and smile which was an easy target), but often these superficial comments led into ones about my (perceived) sexual orientation. It got so bad that I would avoid calling attention to myself altogether. That meant that I wouldn’t let myself answer questions in class, I wouldn’t let myself laugh, and I wouldn’t even let myself smile.
I remember one morning when one of my good friends told a joke before school, and I could’t help but laugh. Before I’d even realized what happened, there were 5 or 6 kids around me, making fun of my “horse lips” and “DSL,” insults when led, inevitably, into slurs like the “F-word.”
I immediately had to remind myself, “Jamie, you don’t SMILE AT SCHOOL!”
Later that day, I was standing in the lunch line, trying to blend in, and staring off into space. I realized in that moment that I had accidentally made eye contact with the coolest 8th grader in the school: Audrey. She got up from her table and starting walking over to me. I freaked out and immediately tried to shrink into the wall.
Audrey walked right up to me and said, “You’re name’s Jamie, right? I saw those kids making fun of your smile this morning…”
I’m thinking: “Great! Didn’t get her jabs in earlier, so she’s here to pile on!”
She goes on, “Well, I just wanted to tell you not to listen to them. You have the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen, and you shouldn’t hide it from anyone.”
I’m thinking: “Wait, does ‘beautiful’ mean something different in 8th grade than it does in 7th grade? How exactly is she making fun of me?”
In truth, she was simply being honest. She was affirming me. I don’t think Audrey and I ever talked again, but she changed my life that day. She planted a tiny seed, one that didn’t sprout over night, but a seed that eventually grew into a powerful reminder that other people thought I was worth while and worthy of love and respect. After all, my friends have to tell me that I’m alright because they’re my friends, but this was different. She was a stranger!
In essence, she acted as a First Responder.
The First Responder
In A Culture of Civility‘s day-long Student UPstander Intervention Training, we teach students how to act as individuals in response to bullying by giving them three intervention options. One of those options is inspired by the example of Audrey.
In the First Responder section of the training, we remind students that sometimes the most powerful thing they can do in response to bullying is to simply reach out to the target of bullying or the person who committed the bullying behavior. Simply put, they can be a First Responder.
By reaching out to the target of the bullying behavior, each of us has a chance to remind them that they are loved, that they are worthy, that no matter what any other person may say, they are an incredible person worthy of respect. Sometimes this simple act can be life saving. It was for me.
The other side of the First Responder coin, though, is that the victim is not the only person who we need to reach out to. In most cases, those who exhibit bullying behavior do so because they are struggling with insecurity, neglect, abuse, or bullying themselves. As a result, if you have a connection to a person who is exhibiting bullying behavior, one of the best things you can do to prevent further bullying is to reach out to them.
Reaching out to see if everything is going okay or to see if there have been any significant changes in their life can go a long way. If you’re someone this person loves or respects, talking to them about their behavior and appealing to their better nature can go even further.
The point is this: empathy for both the bullied and the person exhibiting bullying behavior is one of the most powerful tools we have as individuals who want to make a change in this pervasive problem.
Obviously acting alone isn’t enough to shift the culture and climate of our schools, but it can sometimes be enough to save or change a life.