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Bully-Proofing Schools

April 20, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Today is the second anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado that left 15 people dead, including the two shooters. Many schools across the country have since begun programs aimed at preventing such violence. Betty Ann Bowser reports on some of those efforts.

STUDENT: Can I play with you.

STUDENT: No way, Darcy, go away.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: These 5th graders at Summit Elementary School just outside of Denver are practicing strategies they’ve learned to avoid becoming victims of bullies. Sometimes it involves pretending to agree with the bully and then walking away.

STUDENT: Amy, your shirt is so ugly. I can’t believe you go out in public.

AMY: Yeah. My mom made me wear it, it is ugly.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When the bullying is more serious –

STUDENT: I’m going to beat you up, if you tell you are going to see your head backwards –.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: — students are taught to get help from an adult.

TEACHER: Okay. Scott, I need to talk with you. I understand from Brianna that you threatened to beat her up after school. That is something we take seriously.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The point of the role play something to help kids feel comfortable about speaking out against bullies.

SPOKESPERSON: How many of you actually feel like there is somebody here at Summit that you could go to to talk to that you could trust if somebody said don’t tell you’d feel like you could tell? That is awesome. I see everybody’s hands up.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Since 1994 the prime minister has been implemented in every elementary and middle school in the Cherry Creek School District in Colorado. So-called “bully proofing” programs have flourished in recent years, especially in the wake of high-profile school shootings like those at Columbine and Santana High Schools. In many of those incidents the gunman were victims of bullies or were bullies themselves. The programs try to prevent both small and larger scale violence by going to the root of the problem.

DEL ELLIOTT: The good news is we do have programs that are effective in reducing violence, and we have programs which are specifically directed to the bullying problem and are effective in reducing levels of bullying are.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Del Elliot is the director of the Center for the Study in Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado. He recently testified before the Colorado legislature, which was considering a bill to require all schools in the state to have bully-proofing programs. Elliot says long-term programs that are implemented school wide can reduce bullying by as much as 50%.

DEL ELLIOTT: The vast majority of the programs are multiyear intervention because it takes that long to effectively address the kinds of environmental conditions that many children come out of and the kinds of environmental conditions they encounter in their peer groups and in order to be able to effectively counter, you know, those kinds of influences it’s going to take time.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Elliot has evaluated a number of model programs like the Cherry Creek program, that generally cost an average school about $4,000 to implement.

PAUL VON ESSEN: (talking to students) Remember we talked about bully by doing stuff to your bodies and they’ll also bully you by using words. Why do we not want kids hurt at school?

STUDENT: We don’t want any victims. That’s why we do that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Social worker Paul Von Essen meets weekly with classes at Homestead Elementary in the Cherry Creek district. Von Essen says that these programs are geared to change the behavior of everyone on a school campus.

PAUL VON ESSEN: About 85% of the kids here are not bullies and they’re not victims. And they are a group of kids that are very able to be kind, comparing considerate, good social problem solving skills. And we ask them to step up and be somebody and have a presence in the school, so it’s about empowering the group to go from a silent majority to a caring community.

BARRY KRISBERG: I think most of this is a waste of time and a waste of energy.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Barry Krisberg is the director of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

BARRY KRISBERG: There’s no one out there who’s validating this. You know, we need a Food and Drug Administration for some of these programs because they’re like fads, you know. Somebody watches about an anti- bullying curriculum on the “Oprah” show and the next thing you know, high schools are buying anti-bullying curriculum.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: He says, instead, society needs to support tougher gun laws, and schools need to invest more in basic activities for kids, like music, art, and sports.

BARRY KRISBERG: If we’re going to spend money, let’s spend money on positive things that young people want and enrich their lives and connect them with adults, instead of spending money on therapy and focusing in on the negative behavior. I mean, getting a whole bunch of kids mobilized to speak out against bullying seems almost a caricature. (Band playing)

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Getting kids involved is the main philosophy at El Camino High School north of San Diego. It offers more than 100 clubs and activities for its 2,700 students. Principal Ron Briggs thinks that’s the best way to prevent violence.

RON BRIGGS: We really encourage students to be involved in some form of just extracurricular activity that they really enjoy. We have an outstanding, fine performing arts program, industrial arts program, and it’s just ongoing in trying to get kids to be connected to the high school experience.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Briggs has not found it necessary to implement a system-wide curriculum teaching anti-bullying strategies, but he supports a Human Relations Council made up of kids from all factions of the school. The group recently began anti- bullying programs.

STUDENT: I’m still very bitter about being teased and made fun of for two years at another high school which was why I came here.

STUDENT: It is hard. We are going to have more an more opportunities to really share those kinds of experiences and maybe learn a way to heal. So thank you for sharing that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The program is run by the Anti-Defamation League. It tries to reduce verbal and physical violence by teaching a core group of kids to overcome prejudice about one another, and then expects those kids to share the ideas with their friends.

MAN: It’s hard to hang out with ethnic groups when you don’t belong to that group. Disagree and agree.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The 30 kids in this program received intensive training in a three-day workshop last month. It included an exercise designed to help kids understand what it feels like to be bullied.

MAN: I’ll be taking you on a chronological journey through your mind’s eye of what your life might have been like if you were gay or lesbian.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The leader had the student write the names of their best friends, their hopes for the future on white cards then one by one, throw them away.

MAN: You don’t understand your feelings and you want to talk about them but you know that you can’t. Hold up the card with the names of your best friends. You no longer feel as close to them as you once did. Throw the card on the floor behind you.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Finally he reached the end of the scenario.

MAN: Three people step out of a nearby car and approach you. They have bats. One of them yells say good night. Queer; swings the bat at your head. The others join in. Now hold up the card with your hopes and dreams. They are gone forever.

CHRISTINE BARRY: When we did the exercise it made me, like, really open up to how these people can be feeling and how the individuals are being treated. I felt like I was going to cry as if it was happening to me.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Do you have any different feeling now than you did before you took part in the program? Has it changed you at all?

PATRICK MARTIN: Yes, it has. I used to I kind of used to be one of the bullies — not, like, super, like, big bully guy. Just there is freshman that get on your nerves, you tell them to shut up and go.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But it makes you think differently about what that might be like now?

PATRICK MARTIN: Yeah, so I’m trying to put myself in their shoes.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Did you ever feel isolated and lonely and angry enough that you ever thought you could do anything like some of the other kids have done, coming in to school with guns?

JON ANDECK: Absolutely, absolutely. I’ve been at my other school I been so depressed that I wanted to do some pretty outlandish things, but I never really followed through. It’s usually at the point when you feel that you have no more control and that no one cares about you, that’s when the turning point is that you don’t really care if you go out and kill someone, you don’t care because you have been through worse than being sent to jail. You have been through worse by being humiliated every day. You been through worse.

ANNA SAPA’U: Like if you felt like you were demoralized or depersonized by people in your society, you tend to feel like, that you have no morals so you become kind of careless.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Denise Frey is director of the program in San Diego.

DENISE FREY: We’ve actually done some research work on our programming. And we have found six months after the programs that students have reported to us not only have their belief systems changed but their behavior has exchanged. So that is what we want to do, because we know that if we affect those attitudes and belief systems, it will alter their behavior.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ironically, Santana High School had tried some of these programs months before the shooting that left two students dead.

DENISE FREY: We actually had our “Names Can Really Hurt Us” assembly program at Santana High School last fall. We spoke to the sophomore class. The student who happened to be the shooter was a freshman. What I think that means to me — and I always try to learn from these incidents — as difficult as this was, what it means to me is when we go in and we deliver a program, I want to reach the entire student body.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And so in that case you hadn’t had a chance to get to that kid yet?

DENISE FREY: No, no.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So that doesn’t mean that the program doesn’t work?

DENISE FREY: Not at all. Not at all. What it means is we need to enlarge the program to meet the needs of every student on campus.

PAUL VON ESSEN: Good afternoon.

STUDENTS: Good afternoon, Paul.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Back in Colorado, the state legislature has passed the bill to require bully proving programs in all public schools. It now awaits the governor’s signature.