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Interview with Erika Harold, Miss America 2003
How Sherwood High School Got Started | What To Do If You're Being Bullied
What Bystanders Can Do | CyberBullying
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Erika Harold, Miss America 2003ITM: 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.

Erika Harold in 10th GradeITM: 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.

ITM: 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.

ITM: Was it just boys or girls? What's the difference when it comes to bullying?
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.

ITM: 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.

ITM: 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.

ITM: 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.

ITM: 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.

ITM: 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.

Erika at her high school graduationITM: 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 at first.

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.

ITM: What's the difference between "teasing" and more serious harrassment?
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.

ITM: 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".

ITM: 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.

ITM: 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 stop it.

ITM: 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."

ITM: 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.