(Host) For years, bullying was seen as a normal, if unpleasant, part of growing up.
Despite efforts nationwide to take a hard line on bullying, many kids continue to be isolated and victimized by their peers.
The Maclure library in Pittsford is using a new book about bullying to jump-start a public discussion on the subject.
VPR’s Nina Keck has more.
(Keck) The cafeteria is packed, but a sixth grader sits quietly by himself. Girls pass notes about another seventh grade girl that are mean and untrue. An eighth grader’s backpack is regularly thrown off the bus.
Rutland author Doug Wilhelm heard these stories and hundreds more while doing research for his new novel, “The Revealers.”
Wilhelm says the pain and isolation he felt in middle school prompted him to write about bullying.
(Wilhelm) I think working on the book made me realize that what I went through in seventh and eighth grade has always influenced my life. Kids really enforce that you don’t belong, that nobody wants you here, that whatever you do is going to be laughed at. So you learn to keep a lot of yourself to yourself and you internalize that message…of I don’t belong, everybody else belongs, but I don’t belong.
(Keck) Three beleaguered seventh graders are at the heart of Wilhelm’s novel. In the book, they get the better of their tormentors by joining together and publicizing their experiences in an unofficial school email forum. Soon, nearly everyone at their junior high is reading and adding their own stories to the mix and the climate of fear and intimidation begins to ease. Bonnie Stewart, librarian at Pittsford’s Maclure Library, hopes the same type of open dialogue will begin tonight. The library bought two hundred copies of Wilhelm’s book and expects about a hundred people at tonight’s discussion.
(Stewart) I just think that these are subjects that we really need to discuss. It’s really hard at a school for certain things to be brought into the open and so I feel that as a neutral party – as a librarian – that I can bring certain subjects to light.
(Keck) A recent national study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that 30% of kids between fifth and eighth grade had either bullied or been bullied. But Doug Wilhelm says after talking to kids at various Vermont schools he thinks the percentage is much higher.
(Wilhelm) I was at a fifth grade class in a rural school here in Vermont just a couple weeks ago and I asked the kids how many kids had been involved in being the victim of bullying of some kind – and it was a very nice group of kids – and probably 75% of their hands went up. And I asked them how many kids had ever picked on or bullied somebody else and almost as many hands went up.
(Keck) And the memories of those incidents linger. Lowell Greene, an Equity Coordinator at Brown University, leads parent and teacher workshops on bullying throughout New England.
(Greene) If you stop someone on the street – and I do this with counselors and teachers all the time – I say, think of a time that you were bullied, teased or harassed. It might have been yesterday, it might have been 20 years ago. They can immediately tell me. That scar has stayed with them all these years. And what is happening is teachers and counselors and school administrators now realize that these behaviors hurt youngsters and impact their achievement in school.
(Keck) Schools are developing clear rules concerning behavior as well as consistent methods of enforcement. Curriculums also include more character development today than they used to. Kids are being taught to be kinder, gentler, more involved and better able to manage conflict. Michele Buzzell is a guidance counselor at Barstow Memorial School in Chittenden. She says they’re using a number of techniques to make their school more welcoming – including a buddy program that regularly pairs younger and older students.
(Buzzell) It creates a sense of community that can only be felt when you see it. The older kids endearing themselves and you don’t ever see that. You always see them with their peers and you don’t see another piece of them in how they relate to others in the context of younger kids.
(Keck) While schools are working hard to make bullying go away, Buzzell says schools can’t do it alone. She says parents must be ready to take action as well – even if their child doesn’t want them to.
(Buzzell) I put forth and convince parents that if it’s happening, it will continue happening. It’s not going to stop and to not respond to it is such a danger. You’ve got to be proactive. To not tell is to keep it going.
(Keck) Educators agree that one of the most important things a parent can do is listen. Those who want to listen and share their ideas on the subject tonight can do so beginning at 6pm at Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.