Bully Pulpit

Written by Niki D'Andrea Category: Hot Topics Issue: September 2015
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Faced with failed attempts at legislative change, Arizona nonprofits preach “positive peer pressure” as a means to curb bullying in local schools.

On a hot Sunday morning in early July, there’s a loud assembly rehearsal in the auditorium of Foothills Elementary, on the northwest side of Phoenix. School’s not just out for summer; the campus closed to students in 2013 and now serves as an administrative office for Paradise Valley Unified School District.

High-energy dance music pumps from two huge speakers flanking the elementary school stage, which is filled with large banners on stands proclaiming positive messages like “Be a Friend,” “Be Thankful,” “Be Honest” and “Be Supportive.” The music is a head-bobbin’ concoction of contemporary pop and hip-hop songs with youth appeal and upbeat lyrics – the hip-hop mix from the Disney show Little Einsteins, the super-happy song “Everything Is Awesome” from The LEGO Movie – and as the booming bass rebounds across the old hardwood floor, a diverse crew of more than 30 dancers moves in a choreographed storm of back flips, hand spins, head stands, hand-claps, high-fives and thumbs-ups.

This is the Be Kind Crew, of the Be Kind People Project, an Arizona-grown initiative designed to teach elementary and middle school students positive behaviors and limit bullying. “If we can get kids early, and teach them values that will work not only in school but throughout their lives, then bullying will be taken care of,” project founder Marcia Meyers says. The Be Kind Crew goes into schools and gives an interactive, energetic presentation full of smiles and sweet dance moves, and then, secure in being viewed as “cool” in the eyes of the kids, delivers the Be Kind People Project’s message of “intentionally extending goodness to others.”

Be Kind People Project (thebekindpeopleproject.org) is one of several homegrown groups focusing their efforts on changing local school climates for the better. And there appears to be a need: According to the 2014 Arizona Youth Survey conducted by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, 31.3 percent of students reported being bullied at least once in the past year, and roughly 39 percent said they’d been bullied online or electronically. Ongoing incidents of bullying have led to tragic outcomes in the form of suicides, but students feeling unsafe at school can also lead to truancy. “A lot of kids wake up and don’t go to school because they don’t feel safe going to school. It’s a really big problem. And obviously, it’s still going on, or we wouldn’t be talking about it,” says Arizona Senator Katie Hobbs (Democrat, District 24), who unsuccessfully tried to get an anti-bullying bill heard in the legislature in 2013. “There are kids today dropping out of school because they’re not safe because of bullying. So our schools need to step up and address these issues so that kids aren’t being robbed of their education.”

Arizona enacted an anti-bullying measure in 2005, which requires school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies. But some say schools and educators, already hard-pressed and stretched thin, aren’t adopting the most useful procedures or evidence-based programs. Legislators have attempted a handful of stymied amendments to the law over the years. Meanwhile, peer-driven nonprofit groups work to educate pre-high school students on the consequences of being a bully and the rewards of being nice – especially when using digital devices and social media. The state’s catching up on that virtual curve, with an incredibly innovative smartphone anti-bullying app emerging from ASU and a confidential online reporting and tracking system.

Other organizations, like Stop Bullying AZ – founded by Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton’s wife, Nicole Stanton – focus on aiding educators in finding and implementing the best anti-bullying programs for their schools. “I think the ray of hope is... we’re starting to build these collaborations, and connecting the dots between various organizations that are all working toward the same goal,” Stanton says. “We don’t have the luxury of unlimited resources and unlimited time, so you’ve got to focus your efforts and really get people working together.”

PHM0915HT03Like many people who dedicate themselves to reducing harassment and harm in schools, Nicole Stanton sees it as a personal issue. Growing up in the miniscule, mining-turned-farming town of Coalville, Utah, Stanton (née France) saw firsthand the brutal effects of bullying when one night, her older brother by eight years, Dion France, came home bloody and bruised. France, a high school junior, had gone to a school board meeting and asked for funds for the school’s debate team to travel out of town. The school’s football coach reportedly told his players France was trying to take money from the football team. That night, several players jumped France outside the local post office, hitting him with a baseball bat and kicking him in the head and ribs, according to Stanton. Stanton says school officials told their parents not to make the problem worse by drawing attention to it, and that the problem would go away on its own. It didn’t. Stanton talks about seeing her soft-spoken and intelligent brother futilely try to make friends in a small town where he didn’t play sports like most guys (he ultimately befriended the adoring elderly ladies of Coalville) and was constantly ostracized for being different. Dion France came out as gay in college. He died of AIDS in 1991, at age 28, but his name lives on in the form of Stanton’s organization, Stop Bullying AZ, and its ASU-supported sister program, the Dion Initiative (dioninitiative.org).

“When my husband became mayor, I decided to take on an issue, and this was the one that I chose, because... my brother had experienced this during the time he was in school,” Stanton says. “After I chose the issue, I did a brief interview with the Arizona Republic and they mentioned it in there, and then people started sending me their stories about what had happened to them, and their bullying experiences. By now, it’s gone far beyond me wanting to help on this issue because of my brother. I’m really doing it because of all these people who have shared their stories with me.”

Stop Bullying AZ started in 2012 as an all-volunteer outreach organization that disseminated information on bullying prevention and solutions. In October 2014, it joined forces with Arizona State University, and the Dion Initiative was born. With funding and a staff, the Initiative has, among other things, created a database of successful, evidence-based anti-bullying programs for schools to access that it hopes to launch this fall. “We’ve literally combed through thousands of academic articles to find all of the credible, relevant studies of what actually works,” Dion Initiative executive director Brad Snyder says. “Our schools have a burden, with so many responsibilities. We ask them to do so much that it’s perhaps a little bit wrong to also expect them to read through all these academic journals and find the thing that works best.”

So what seems to be working? “If you want to improve school climate, you need to devote in-class time to addressing relationships and teaching positive relationship skills. It’s not enough to hold an assembly and then never do anything,” Snyder says. “What is consistent across all of the evidence-based programs is that one, they make it a whole school priority to improve interpersonal relationships among students, staff, and between staff and students. Two, they give in-class time to address relationships, and also to teach relationship skills. When we look at failures of school climate, whether it be that there’s harassment or bullying or prejudice, it really all comes down to failures in relationship skills.”

Snyder says building good relationships among students and staff is an integral part of improving school climates and a vital component of successful anti-bullying programs. The Be Kind People Project, which visits schools gratis all over the state, including some on the Navajo Nation, works with each school to tailor a program specific to its needs – then the Be Kind Crew comes in and makes an impression, and a member of the crew returns to the school two or three times throughout the year to reinforce their message of positivity and maintain a rapport with students. Every member of the crew is a professional dancer with experience in education or working with children; some are members of the Phoenix Suns’ Solar Squad and Phoenix Mercury Hip-Hop Squad. All are young, hip-looking and diverse, representing a range of races, body types and personal styles. “I think that all kids inherently want to do good,” says Sarah “Saza” Dimmick, artistic director for the Be Kind Crew. “And a lot of them just don’t have the tools or even know what the words mean, and when they have someone that looks like us – or looks like them, more importantly – giving them examples and showing that it’s cool to do these things, it’s rewarding to be kind, that it feels good to do it, and once they see someone they think is cool doing it and saying it’s cool, [they want to do it].”

The Be Kind People Project eschews words like “anti,” “bully” and other negatives. Meyers says there are two reasons for this. “There is more and more research coming out that indicates anti-bullying programs in schools are in fact having a reverse effect. When anti-bullying becomes the focus, then everything is about bullying and there are issues. So that’s number one,” she says. “Number two, we think that bullying – true bullying, not just [a shove on the shoulder] in class or somebody fighting over a sandwich for a minute in the cafeteria; those are kid things – true bullying is a real problem, and requires professionals with skilled training.”

On its website stopbullying.gov, the U.S. Department of Health defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-age children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” Bullying behaviors include making threats, spreading gossip, attacking someone verbally or physically and purposely excluding someone from a group.

The advent of the Internet and the dominance of digital devices has added another dimension to bullying: cyberbullying. Sending harassing emails and text messages, spreading rumors via social media comments, and posting or creating embarrassing pictures and fake profiles can have a profound impact on victims, rendered more painful by the global immediacy and replication of being online. “The classic definition of bullying is that it’s a deliberately harmful act that gets repeated,” Snyder says. “And what the Internet does is, it makes that repetition happen almost automatically. Whereas before, if we looked at pre-Internet bullying, it didn’t arise to the level of bullying until someone had said or done something to a bullying victim more than once. It’s the repetition of the act that makes it bullying. Well, one hurtful text, one hurtful email, one hurtful social network post, can be forwarded and replicated almost automatically, such that the perpetrator might not have even wanted this to happen. And yet the victim is experiencing it as bullying, because it moves so quickly. So that has changed the landscape for sure. It’s also the case where adults who care about kids are kind of caught off-guard about this.”

There are some warning signs of cyberbullying (see sidebar on page 29), but some tech-savvy local youths are stepping up to try and cut it off at the pass – like Matthew Kaplan, 19, who started the Be One Project (which “harnesses the power of Positive Peer Pressure,” according to thebeoneproject.org) last October in response to seeing his younger brother being bullied by some of his classmates via text message. “We’re only two grades apart, so we sort of grew up together and were sort of experiencing the world together. So to watch him sort of revert into himself and close himself off and see his self-confidence really shattered was hard,” Kaplan says. “And the system that was in place that was supposed to protect him and help wasn’t doing anything, so I had this moment where I realized, ‘If no one else is going to do something, why not me?’”

The Be One Project’s school program has been featured in PSAs on the Disney Channel and Radio Disney for almost a year and Kaplan estimates that to date, he’s PHM0915HT04worked with about 4,000 kids in four different states. The three-hour program – which is free to schools – includes team-building and icebreaker exercises, a slideshow of celebrities’ middle school photos (“to show kids that middle school isn’t permanent, and we have to see each other for our potential,” Kaplan says), discussion circles, and writing positive affirmations to each other “so everyone leaves with a bag of kind notes.”    

Like the Be Kind People Project, the Be One Project utilizes peer mentors (high school kids, including Kaplan’s two younger brothers), hones in on kids in grades five through eight, and follows up twice after each presentation at a school. “The thing about middle school is that it’s a time when kids are getting access to technology – cell phones, social media accounts – so we’ve really seen a rise in cyberbullying in middle school,” Kaplan says. “What we do is take a proactive stance and reach those kids right at the moment they’re getting those tools, and challenge them to use them appropriately. So they’re not trying to fix bad behavior; they’re cultivating good behavior early on.”

Snyder says kids these days are getting a bit tougher on cyberbullying. “Kids aren’t putting up with it anymore, and the solution to bullying is not about punishing bullies or even empowering victims – they’ve got enough going on, victims, it’s not their responsibility,” he says. “In reality, if we want to stop bullying, we engage bystanders – those people who are neither the bully nor the victim, and we help them understand how better off their communities are when they step in and intervene and include kids that are typically left out, and report bullying when they see it. And they’re doing that in cyberspace now.”

“[Cyberbullying] is actually a whole different world,” Kaplan explains. “When we think of bullying, we traditionally think of the biggest kid on the playground pushing somebody up against their locker and asking for money. Cyberbullying can happen anytime, anywhere. We’re no longer confined to the school property for bullying to take place.”

“What’s really so powerful about cyberbullying is that kids don’t actually see a person’s face when they hit ‘send,’” Kaplan continues. “A lot of them don’t perceive the text messages or emails that they’re sending as hurtful. Because they’re saying things that they would never say to another person, face to face.”

Thanks to initiatives like the Be One and Be Kind People projects, students in Arizona are being made aware earlier of the consequences and rewards of their actions, including and sometimes especially those involving smartphones, laptops and PCs. And locally developed e-wonders like apps and online tracking systems are emerging to combat bullying both cyber and school-bound. Parents, students and staff can confidentially report safety concerns to school administrators via the SafeSchools Alert, a component of Safe Teens AZ, run by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.

This fall, the Dion Initiative hopes to launch the BullyBlocker app to alert parents when their children are being cyberbullied. The BullyBlocker software is being developed by Professor Yasin Silva of the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences at ASU. “It used to be that we used ‘Net nannies’ and all these apps, and they would filter messages coming in to somebody,” Snyder says. “And that’s still very important, but professor Silva and his student team... looked at the science of bullying, and they recognized that there is a victim profile, and not just a perpetrator profile.”

After being given various permissions, BullyBlocker extracts data from a child’s Facebook account and analyzes it for signs of cyberbullying – mean comments, humiliating images, etc. – by plugging into computer algorithms that assign a “Bullying Rank” to determine how at risk the child is of feeling cyberbullied. When a red flag goes up, the app sends a message to parents.

“You can tell about a 15-year-old Facebook user if they moved recently, if they started a new school recently, if their parents are together still, if they’ve recently broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, if they’re having trouble with other things. You can know if they’re involved in a lot of sports, have an active social life – all of that you can tell from their profile,” Snyder says. “So Bully Blocker takes all that information, and using psychological information from other researchers at ASU, assigns kids risk scores that it then uses to filter the messages they receive. There’s nothing like it. It’s fantastic. And it’s working. We’ve got an actual working prototype that is pulling information off Facebook, assigning risk scores... our next step is to scale it so that we can have millions of kids and families using it.”

Arizona’s anti-bullying laws, first enacted in 2005, require school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies, and mandate a confidential reporting and investigation process. The laws were amended in 2011 to require public school districts to define and prohibit bullying and cyberbullying, and to dictate disciplinary measures for teachers and staff who fail to resport suspected bullying incidents.

Some legislators say that’s not enough. “The bullying laws in this state are insufficient,” Arizona Senator David Schapira (Democrat, District 17) said in 2012, after an anti-bullying bill he sponsored was killed in the House after passing the Senate. Under the bill, SB 1462, every school in the state would have offered training for staff, students and parents on recognizing, reporting and addressing bullying.

Among the groups who supported Schapira’s bill were the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Defamation League and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Although the bill did not provide protections specifically for LGBT youth or call for any in-school training to be conducted by LGBT advocacy groups, it died, supporters say, because of opposition from Cathi Herrod and the conservative Christian lobbying group she heads, Center for Arizona Policy (CAP). Herrod did not respond to interview requests, but wrote in CAP’s Internet newsletter at the time: “There is no doubt about it; the ‘bullying’ theme is agenda-driven propaganda... groups like Equality Arizona and GLSEN have chosen this issue to bully you and me into allowing them access to our schools and to our children.”

The following legislative session, Hobbs introduced an anti-bullying bill, SB 1051, that did provide protections specifically for sexual orientation. The bill died in committee without getting a single hearing. “After Katie’s bill was killed, we actually held a candlelight vigil at the Capitol, where we just said, ‘The vigil is here to remind people of all the nameless, faceless children who will go to bed again tonight not having any protection from what’s happening to them in school,’” says Stanton, adding that after two consecutive failed attempts at further anti-bullying legislation, she’s less than optimistic that anything’s going to get done on that end. “I came to the conclusion after two legislative sessions that we were not making progress, and we probably weren’t going to make progress given the complexion of the legislature and the influence of Mrs. Herrod... We were getting absolutely nothing done down at the legislature. We abandoned that and ever since then, we have been establishing relationships with some of the larger school districts, with the Arizona School Boards Association, with the [Arizona] School Administrators Association, and so that’s really the way we’ve been trying to tackle this problem.”

Senator Hobbs seems undaunted. “This is something I’ve continued to pursue, and I probably will again. It got a lot of attention in 2012 because Senator Schapira was successful at getting it out of the Senate, and I haven’t been able to get the same traction for it that he got that one year,” she says. “I’ll continue introducing this. It’s important to my constituents, and it keeps the conversation going and keeps it up there as an issue we need to focus on.”