After holding my annual Middle School Anti-Bullying Conference in October, I met my 27-year-old daughter for lunch, and she asked how it went. I told her that we had a record number of students and a variety of powerful workshops where students role-played and learned how to de-escalate tough situations; learned tactics for how best to deal with online bullies; took part in self-esteem and character-building exercises to discover how to be less susceptible to peer pressure; and also engaged in circle discussions on how to change their school climate and culture.
I spoke in particular about one thought-provoking workshop that seemed to really capture the students’ attention. The workshop presenter, Epic Theatre Ensemble, simply asked: “Why is bullying still so prevalent if everyone is against it?”
My daughter looked me dead in the eye and said, “Dad, you know I was bullied in school.”
My heart sank. I asked many questions in rapid-fire succession: What, when, where, who? Who did you tell? What did you do about it? How did you feel? And, finally, why didn’t you tell me?
She teared up and answered each question.
It turns out she was bullied in our neighborhood public middle school on Long Island.
While I was shocked, I was not surprised. When adolescents enter middle school, they are “on their own” in school for the first time. They are meeting new people and trying to figure out who they are and how they fit in. Kids at that age are easily influenced by peers. They are more likely to follow along even if someone is doing something they don’t agree with or believe in because they would rather “fit in” than be different and stand out. In middle school, for many children, being accepted by peers is the ultimate goal. They are not thinking about potential implications and consequences. The developmental stage that children are going through in their middle school years is the reason bullying peaks at this time.
My daughter told me she was bullied about our religion. Boys she considered friends made some stereotypical statements and described our religion using words that, at the time, she didn’t even understand. She laughed it off in front of them but internalized the hurt and anger. When other kids witnessed the comments, they said nothing.
I again asked why she didn’t tell an adult at the school or me. “What were they or you going to do about it?” she said. That was a gut punch. She should’ve known what to do and where to turn for help. The importance of teaching about bullying can never be overstated.
As a parent, I felt pain for my daughter. I wished I had known so I could have addressed it appropriately.
Almost 35% of middle school students have reported being bullied online or in person. And that’s only the percentage who reported it.
This conference gave us in the UFT Middle School Division the opportunity to teach students how to identify the many different ways in which people are bullied, what to do if they are victims of bullying and what to do if they see others being bullied.
Our role as educators is not always about reading, writing and math. It’s about how we make our school communities safer learning environments. As both an educator and a parent, I can tell you that it’s long overdue.