Interview with Erika Harold, Miss America 2003
Sherwood High School Got Started | What
To Do If You're Being Bullied
What Bystanders Can Do
Erika, why is the issue of bullying so important to you?
ERIKA: When I was in the ninth grade I was the victim of pervasive
and severe racial and sexual harassment. It started out simply with
name calling and teasing and taunting. Another thing the students
would do is play this game called "The Un-cool Game." I
would be sitting in class, and the students would sit there with clipboards
and pieces of paper on the clipboards. For the entire class period
they would watch and monitor everything I would do. And they would
write it down. Then at the end of the class period they would actually
be given the opportunity to read aloud to the rest of the students
the list of all of the "un-cool" things I had done. It was
a degrading experience, to say the least. It
started in ninth grade, and it was very difficult because many of
the students who were involved used to be my friends during the eighth
grade. So it was disconcerting to come back to school in ninth grade
and to have the whole dynamic changed.
Did you have any ideas why they were doing this?
ERIKA: I can't really say exactly why they were doing it. I
think one of the things was my racial background - my mother is African
American and Cherokee Indian and my father is Greek, German, and English.
So that combination sets me apart, but I don't know exactly what it
was about me that made me the target.
How did you feel?
ERIKA: I was very scared and I felt very helpless because it
seemed as if no one in the school was willing to stand up and help
me. And I was only thirteen years old at the time and really didn't
know how to best protect myself. And so I would go to school every
day basically just hoping to be invisible and to make it through each
class period alive.
Was it just boys or girls? What's the difference when it comes to
ERIKA: In my situation it was both boys and girls. And generally
speaking, boys tend to bully more in terms of physical aggression
and fighting, whereas girls use more emotional and verbal bullying,
and then social ostracism, like gossip, name calling, not inviting
certain people to their parties, things like that.
And most people just don't even consider that as bullying, right?
ERIKA: Yes. A lot of adults don't think that it has a serious
impact. But when I was asking kids which hurts you more, if someone
were to punch you or call you a name, they didn't see a difference.
Some people actually felt the emotional bullying was worse, because
while you can recover from a physical wound, emotional wounds stay
with you for a much longer time.
What did you do to keep your confidence up?
ERIKA: I would talk to my parents, after I got the confidence
to share with them what was going on. And they would tell me that
I couldn't believe what other people were saying about me and that
I had to keep staying involved in the activities that were important
to me, because if I withdrew it meant I was giving other people power
over my life.
It's very difficult to go to parents for help. When did you decide
to do that?
ERIKA: I think it took me probably a couple of weeks because
on some level I felt very embarrassed about what was going on. I thought
it was something that I had done to cause it, and so initially I started
wondering, is it the way I look, is it the way I dress? And I tried
to change things about myself first, but I began to realize that it
didn't matter what I was doing, they were going to continue perpetrating
that harassment against me and so I felt I was in a situation that
was over my head so I had to tell my parents.
What did they do?
ERIKA: My parents first had me go through everything, because
they wanted to get a really clear idea of what was going on. They
tried to talk to the students' parents, they tried to talk to the
teacher, the principal. But it was very difficult because if school
officials don't take it seriously, it's really hard for parents to
be able to be very effective.
What about your friends?
ERIKA: Well, I think the number of people who wanted to hang
around really started to decrease because they were afraid if they
were too closely associated with me then they would be targeted themselves.
But I had a few close friends who did stand up for me. That's why
it's so important if you know someone who is being picked on. Don't
just isolate them because the last thing they need is to feel like
they are all alone.
So, what finally happened?
ERIKA: After I kept trying to stand up for myself and tried
to get the teachers to help me, I felt like I was forced to transfer
to a different school, so I moved to a different school during the
middle of my sophomore year. And that was a difficult transition as
well because the school that I transferred to was in the same community
as the previous school so everyone, everyone, knew exactly why I was
there. And so I had to live down a lot of people's prejudice and misconceptions
about me. Eventually it got much better but it was very difficult
ITM: Did you think the way the first school handled it was fair?
ERIKA: I didn't think it was fair because I didn't feel the
principals and the teachers took a strong enough stance against the
students. Of course as a student it's your responsibility to stand
up for yourself, but there is only so much you can do when you are
thirteen, fourteen years old and you don't have any advocates working
on your behalf.
What's the difference between "teasing" and more serious
ERIKA: I think teasing is something that happens between friends
and both people know that they have equal amounts of power, nobody
is feeling bad about the situation and both people leave feeling good
about the exchange. But harassment is where one person has more power,
maybe it's because they are stronger, maybe it's gender, it can be
a whole host of reasons. But only one person is laughing there and
the other person leaves feeling sort of degraded and dehumanized.
How have students across the country responded to your work?
ERIKA: I think the main thing I took from it is that so many
students have similar experiences. I asked students to share with
me whether or not they've been victimized or whether or not they can
relate to my experiences. And I have heard some of the most tragic
stories. I've heard of students who get beat up every day. I've heard
of students who don't want to go to school anymore because of what
people say and do to them. And it's been heartbreaking to know that
I'm not the only one who's experienced this. Every school I go to
I've met so many young people who say, "This is my life as well".
What is your advice to anybody who's being bullied?
ERIKA: The first piece of advice I would give is, don't believe
that you've done anything to provoke it. I think a lot of people don't
want to get help because they think, "It's something about me
that caused me to have to deal with this." Nothing you have done
or said caused you to have to deserve this type of attention. So first
of all, you have to believe you are worth protecting. Secondly, you
have to tell somebody. Maybe it's a trusted adult, a parent, a coach,
a youth leader, you need to tell an adult because if you don't the
situation can quickly escalate. And it's also good if you can find
friends and people in your class that can help and support you. Because
you don't want it just to be adults getting involved, ultimately the
best solution is when kids stand up for each other.
What should bystanders do?
ERIKA: I think there are some simple things that a bystander
can do, if they're not feeling courageous enough to do something active.
First of all, you can choose not to laugh at a joke if someone is
telling a joke about another person. You can choose not to egg on
a conflict because you cause that to escalate. If you're feeling very
courageous, you can confront the bully and say, "You shouldn't
do that. That's wrong. That's inappropriate." You can also tell
an adult. It's important that when you are telling the adult, you
tell them you want it to be confidential, so you're not causing the
situation to get worse. But I think it's important that bystanders
do something. I think each person has a moral obligation to not just
stand there and watch someone be victimized day in, day out, but to
decide for yourself that's wrong, and I'm going to do something to
What should students do?
ERIKA: One of the things I've noticed that students have been
doing is starting groups across the country, and they decide that
they no longer want to deal with violence and bullying in their schools.
So they start some sort of student group that tries to foster tolerance
for diversity. They order dances to promote peace. They put up posters
around the school to promote diversity. That's one way students can
mobilize, take action, and say, "Everybody in our school should
be respected and treated with dignity."
You've done an amazing job on this issue and we wish you lots of luck!
ERIKA: Thank you very much. I just want everyone to remember
that bullying and harassment are serious issues and we need everyone's
help to combat them.