This fall, an entire community in Michigan stood behind a bullied girl who’d been elected to the homecoming court as a joke. Undeterred by the prank, the brave young girl proudly attended the football game as part of the court with the support of everyone in the town. A local boutique donated her dress, a salon provided hair and makeup, and hundreds of fans at the homecoming game wore orange t-shirts that said “It’s not cool to be cruel!”
It was a fitting way to kick off National Bullying Prevention Month. This year’s theme “The End of Bullying Begins with Me,” reminds students, educators and parents that we all need to take individual action when it comes to bullying, like standing up for a girl who was targeted by a small group of students in Michigan. The theme also fits perfectly with NEA’s Bully Free It Starts With Me campaign, which kicked off this year’s Bullying Prevention Month with a drive to get more caring adults to take the Bully Free pledge.
Bullying Prevention Month was started by the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights (PACER), a national parent center serving all youth, with a special emphasis on children with disabilities. PACER is a major partner of the National Education Association, who has long supported its programs and has participated in National Bullying Prevention Month since PACER began the program in 2006.
We caught up with the Director of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center Julie Hertzog to ask her about the continued fight to end bullying.
How did Bullying Prevention Month start?
We were just launching our new website, KidsAgainstBullying.org, and were receiving more and more calls from concerned parents, educators and students about the fact that bullying was becoming a major problem in schools. We recognized that communities needed to have a dialogue about bullying – they were asking for help and guidance. We then began to look at what other countries were doing to address the problem, and most had a national event to raise awareness. That’s when, in 2006, we launched National Bullying Prevention Week. The program grew exponentially every year, so in 2010 we expanded it to a month. Shools participate in variety of activities over the month, such as Unity Day on October 10.
Bullying has gotten a lot of attention in the past couple of years – has all of the national coverage had an impact on the prevalence of bullying?
It’s a hard question to answer because we don’t have the data. It’s like when people asked if the incidence of bullying had increased in the past 10 years or so. Without data we didn’t know if it was happening more often, or if people were more aware and concerned about it.
We’ve certainly moved away from the “kids will be kids” mindset and don’t think bullying is a rite of passage any longer. And though we don’t have hard data, it seems kids report bullying more than they used to simply because we’re having the conversation, and they’re more supported by adults and educators when they speak out. We’ve been directing information toward the “bystander” who knows bullying is wrong, but wasn’t sure how to handle it. They never liked it, but didn’t know what to do — now they know there’s a whole movement behind them.
What do you think is the best strategy for educators and parents to prevent bullying?
So often we hear from kids who say they feel alone, that nobody cares and nobody notices that they’re bullied. If you simply acknowledge the situation it goes a long way. Just say, “Hey I saw something that happened, can you tell me about it?” That tells a child that they have someone looking out for them. Just knowing that they don’t deserve to be bullied is very, very powerful. It sounds simple, but it’s very important. A safe school climate means every kid feels valued and welcomed.
NEA has a pledge for caring adults to take as a way to help prevent bullying. We know you’ve taken the pledge. Why is it important that we have many more pledge takers?
A pledge is a symbol, and behind that symbolism stands a movement. When you tangibly acknowledge that you are going to do something, it is far more likely that you’ll actually do it. There’s power in a pledge, and power in the number of pledge takers – we need a big number if we’re to show students we really care and that we want to help.
Educators want to work more closely with parents to prevent bullying – what are some tips?
We talk to lots of parents whose kids are being bullied. Parents should know who their point of contact is at school if they want to report. Is it the teacher, the counselor, the principal? Let all your parents know who to reach out to if they have a concern about bullying, and let them know what the anti-bullying policies are and where to find them online. If there’s no policy, ask for one on behalf of your students and parents.
As a mom, what I appreciate is having an open dialogue with my kids’ teachers. If even the smallest thing happens, I want them to let me know. And that goes both ways. My daughter told me how some boy bumped her in the hallway, and we talked about it. Soon I learned there was more to it than a little bump, so I emailed her teacher who has let me know she’s always open to any communications from me. I told her I wanted her to be aware of the situation and that we should both keep an eye on it. Having that open, two-way communication allows us to handle a bullying situation before it escalates.
What are your hopes for this year’s Bullying Prevention Month?
I hope that we all continue the nationwide dialogue that’s happening. That dialogue creates a system of support for kids who had felt alone and as though they didn’t have options. My hope for kids is that they no longer feel alone. My hope for parents and educators is that they feel they have adequate information to help them respond to a bullying situation and more forward. And I hope that the message of empathy and kindness shine through this month and through the rest of the year.