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Darkness Visible

Illustration by Dung Hoang | Source photography by Leng Hong Lim

Darkness Visible

How to Bring Bullying into the Light


It’s a cold, gray January morning in Edgewater, Maryland, and the 1,100 students in Central Middle School are rambunctious. Wearing coats, hoodies, T-shirts and jeans, they stop first at their powder-blue lockers and then head to their homerooms while carrying on conversations that compete with the din of a building filled with eager adolescents. They may be extra-amped because a snowstorm closed the school yesterday and delayed today’s opening; plus, it’s Friday—the weekend’s coming up. So, as Principal Mildred Beall kicks off the morning announcements, teachers have to spend extra time settling everyone down. 

Soon, four eighth-grade girls gather round the microphone and wait for a fellow classmate to play the opening chords of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” on the piano. They sing utterly new lyrics:

I’m just a new kid at Central Middle School
 I get laughed at every day at school
 It’s just not fair, I’ve got no one here
 Why doesn’t anybody care?

The lead-in to the chorus quickly answers:

BAC, we’ve got your back
 We are right here, if you need us.

When the song’s over, two more members of BAC (Bully Awareness Crew) make announcements—one for a lunchtime art contest, the other a poem about “kindness” urging listeners to “pass it on.”

If this sounds too good to be true—a Hallmark moment in a Lake Wobegon-like middle school—consider this: The students in Beall’s office are just a handful of the 86 eighth-graders who have joined BAC since its inception in the spring of 2010. That’s when the class’s guidance counselor, Sandra Seward, asked several of its then seventh-grade members to come up with a student-led means to combat what the federal government considers an urgent problem.

“About 30 percent of youth report they’ve been involved in bullying, as a victim or perpetrator, on a frequent basis within the past month,” says the Bloomberg School’s Catherine Bradshaw, PhD, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, and a renowned expert on bullying. In August 2010, she spoke at the first-ever Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Summit in Washington, D.C.

By the time students graduate from high school, Bradshaw notes, 80 percent will have witnessed at least one bullying incident. At the middle school level—the peak time for bullying—more than 30 percent of students don’t feel safe from physical, verbal and/or indirect abuse, including cyber-bullying, she says.

Central Middle, like other schools in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, is doing something about the problem—in part because of state and school district mandates. Maryland is one of 45 states that, in the past few years, have passed anti-bullying laws, many requiring school systems to implement reporting, intervention and prevention procedures. While there are many reasons for the current focus on an age-old problem, headline-grabbing incidents have raised its profile. Last year, a Massachusetts high school freshman named Phoebe Prince committed suicide after being bullied for months by a handful of classmates. Her death prompted the state government to pass sweeping anti-bullying legislation in May 2010.

“This is a watershed moment,” says Deborah Temkin, research and policy coordinator for Bullying Prevention Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education. “We’ve hit a point where the effects of bullying have struck such a chord with people that they’re really taking notice.”

The choice is to act or to continue to suffer adverse public health consequences, says Philip Leaf, PhD, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence. “On the one end, you have people dying from it, committing suicide,” he says of some bullying victims. As for the bullies themselves, he notes, “children in adolescence engaged in aggressive behavior are at much higher risk for both subsequent juvenile issues and substance use.”


This forum is closed
  • Lisa Muessig

    Kansas City, KS 05/12/2011 03:29:52 PM

    I liked the students' new lyrics and the use of the arts to raise awareness.

  • Cathy Readmond

    Bayview Campus 05/12/2011 04:14:39 PM

    What an inspiring article. I have a child ready to enter high school. I am thankful bullying is no longer looked at as a right of passage.

  • Teresa Wonnell

    Homewood campus 06/09/2011 08:52:32 AM

    I sent this article to my middle schooler's principal, and she shared it with her school counseling team. The school is going to discuss starting a student club similar to the one at Central. So I think it's an inspiring article as well!

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