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Darkness Visible

Illustration by Dung Hoang | Source photography by Leng Hong Lim

Darkness Visible (continued)

Lunchtime for the 300-plus sixth-graders at Central Middle School may play havoc on the ears, but there is order in the cafeteria, where one of the monitors is Seward, a former art teacher wearing a black dress, matching boots and a big smile. She grabs a microphone and lets the packed lunchroom know that it’s time to check out the BAC table, where a couple of members will explain the “Two Hearts Contest.”

Soon, a handful of girls are lined up, each holding a pink flier instructing them to draw a design within a heart that “portrays kindness.” They’re told that once two winners are chosen, Seward and a few BAC members will decorate two large wooden hearts using the designs as blueprints. Plus, each winner will get a $15 iTunes gift card.

There’s no pitch for the BAC or any attempt to engage the sixth-graders in a bullying discussion. “Oh, no,” Seward says, “these kids already know about the BAC.” Aside from the weekly announcements, there’s also visual evidence: the laminated hearts, smiley faces and peace signs students purchased from the BAC, at 25 cents each, and inscribed with friendly messages. They share space in the hallways with bright yellow banners featuring BAC-composed slogans such as, “Step Up! So Others Don’t Get Stepped On,” “Friends Don’t Let Friends Be Bullies” and “Bullying Is Cruel and NOT Cool.”

Meeting in a conference room with 15 of the BAC members is a good way to sample the enthusiasm firsthand. While they take their role-model responsibilities seriously, they’re also having fun, in part because Seward facilitates biweekly after-school meetings in which members discuss and formulate new ways to get the anti-bullying message out. The group, which has made presentations to parents and district officials, hopes to cap the school year with an assembly featuring performances and a PowerPoint presentation. “This is our first year doing this,” says Seward, whose aim is to have half the eighth-grade class, or 150 students, join by year’s end. “So it’s very much a work-in-progress.”

Even so, the students say they’ve seen the school’s atmosphere change since implementation of the BAC, which welcomes new students—often prime bullying targets—and helps Seward recruit “borderline bullies”—those whose behavior tends toward aggression but can be changed, she says.

To appreciate how far schools like Central Middle have come, it’s worth looking back 10 years, when a series of school shootings, including one that took the lives of 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado, were met with extreme responses: metal detectors and zero-tolerance policies, among them. “We’ve since learned that the punitive route is not the way to go,” says Temkin of the U.S. Department of Education.

“Sending kids [who’ve bullied] home for three or five or 10 days has no remedial impact in terms of changing their behavior,” concurs Leaf, who, along with Bradshaw, is a co-director of the youth-focused Johns Hopkins Center for Prevention and Early Intervention. “If they’re not in school, and not learning anything, there won’t be any changed behaviors.”

The numbers play this out. The rate of bullying, according to Bradshaw, has remained stable, even as other forms of school violence have declined in the past decade.

Bradshaw first took up the anti-bullying crusade in the late ’90s, when she realized, as a graduate student counseling youth in detention centers, that they’d been subjected to various forms of violence, including bullying in schools. The attitude then was that bullying was a rite of passage to be endured. And the research was scant—one or two papers a year. Post-Columbine, however, there was a rush to investigate bullying, accompanied by state and federal grants. “Now, you see at least 100 papers a year,” she says.

In general, Bradshaw reports, “the data suggest that you start to see bullying pick up in late elementary school—grades 4 and 5. Middle school tends to be the peak, and around 10th, 11th grade, it peters out.”

The exception is cyber-bullying, which is on the rise, even though it’s still a small slice of the pie, with roughly 10 percent, on average, claiming to be victims (see Bullying Defined Online and Off).

Whatever the form bullying takes, research indicates that a positive school environment is key to prevention. And, in 2007, Bradshaw and two colleagues reported disconnects between staff and student perceptions on this score. For example, more than 70 percent of staff in elementary schools, 40 percent in middle schools and 57 percent in high schools assumed that the number of students bullied in the previous month was 10 percent or less. But students at those grade levels indicated that 34, 33 and 23 percent, respectively, had been bullied in that time period. And at the middle school level, more than 30 percent of students felt that staff did nothing to follow up reports of bullying.


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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