Monday, November 4, 2013

Bucks County Peace Center creates circle of safety from bullies

Posted: Wednesday, October 30, 2013

In middle school, Courtney Miller was a smart, outgoing, athletic girl who hung out with the popular kids. So why did she end up spending much of seventh grade hiding in the guidance counselor’s office, too scared to go to class?
Bullies, she said. For six long months, they made school unbearable.
Girls wrote profanity on her books. They threw her belongings in the trash. They threatened her. They spread gossip about her. Worse, they ostracized her.
While schoolyard bullies are as old as playgrounds, they no longer single out only the weak. They’ll pick on anyone — even other popular kids, behavioral experts say. And, they say, bullies have moved beyond old-fashioned physical attacks, to inflicting emotional pain through exclusion and public humiliation aimed at damaging the target’s relationships with others.
The national spotlight has returned to the subject of bullying with the recent arrest of two Florida girls — ages 12 and 14 — on felony aggravated stalking charges in connection with the suicide of a 12-year-old girl they allegedly bullied.
Historically, much of the media attention and research involving bullying and its prevention have focused on the perpetrators, not the victims.
Enter Courtney, now a 15-year-old junior at Neshaminy High School. While she has a busy academic and social schedule, she makes time to teach others kids that they can survive bullying — like she did.
At weekly meetings in the Bucks County Peace Center’s Langhorne headquarters, kids in grades two through eight meet with Courtney to learn healthy ways to handle emotional stress and confrontation and to build their confidence. The group — called the Beyond the Bully Support Circle — recently entered its second year.
While the kids meet downstairs, the parents meet upstairs with Peace Center staff members to get support and advice about dealing with their own issues related to their children’s bullying.
The support group started with three kids, but it quickly grew to about 35, said Karin Kasdin, director of the Peace Center’s Bullying Prevention Resource Center.
The program has been so successful that the Peace Center recently started groups in the Bristol Township and Palisades school districts. Like the one in Langhorne, the youth support groups are led by trained teens such as Courtney who were once bullied but overcame the experience and want to help others do the same.
The goal of the support circle is simple: provide a safe place where kids can share their bullying experiences with other kids, build self-esteem and learn coping and anger management strategies, Kasdin said.
“We found that kids are more likely to open up about their feelings to older kids than they are to adults, whom they perceive to be in the teacher or counselor category,” she added.
They also learn that they are far from alone in their experiences.
Finding support
Games are a big part of the kids’ weekly meetings, which are also overseen by an adult supervisor.
One activity has the kids running in place until they feel better. Another involves reverse role playing, where the bullied person plays the part of a bully and the group discusses ways to handle similar confrontations.
At a recent meeting, Courtney had members practice how to walk with confidence. She reminded them not to show bullies that their actions or words are hurtful.
“If (the bullies) don’t think they’re winning, it’s not fun (for them),” she told the kids in her group, who have experienced bullying that ranges from name-calling to violence. At their request, we agreed not to identify the bullied kids or their parents.
In sixth grade, “S” was poked a dozen or more times a day by a classmate. Another student threatened to burn her with a glue gun. Classmates also invented a game called “Kick S.” The winner was the person who kicked the girl the most times during the school day.
But the physical confrontations were only part what “S” endured. Classmates would turn their backs on her and push her desk away from others. She was the last picked for any group activity. The situation grew so dire, that “S” started experiencing panic attacks and nightmares, her mom said. She missed the last 10 days of seventh grade last year because she refused to go to school.
“L” started being bullied in third grade, her mom said. Nothing physical, but girls called her names. Last year, her grades dropped and she showed signs of stress. The situation got so bad that when her parents dropped her off at school, “L” would start crying.
“I’m stupid,” “L” would tell her mother.
During a recent support group meeting, an 8-year-old talked about getting kicked and scratched in school and called rude names.
How did you beat them? Courtney asked him. He enrolled in a new school, the boy said, a move that most kids in the support circle on this particular night had done.
Courtney understands.
Her bullying started over a boy who liked her, much to the dismay of the other popular girls who were her friends, she said. The situation resolved itself after the bullying girls were suspended for two days, she said.
Eventually, each girl apologized to her, Courtney said, and she hasn’t been bullied since.
“I would have been able to get through that experience quicker if I had that kind of support,” she said about her support group.
Teaching parents
Anyone who believes bullying isn’t as bad as it used to be is right, behavioral experts say. In many ways, it’s worse.
“With the advent of social media, bullying has become more widespread in that it is 24/7. It is everywhere you go,” Kasdin said. “We’re finding kids are feeling really violated, publicly. What is public is also permanent.”
Recently, the Peace Center worked on a case that was forwarded to the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office after the bullied teen snapped and hit his bully, Kasdin said. Because of fights, local police have been called several times to one of the schools where Kasdin works.
Research has upended the belief that bullies are often insecure kids with low self-esteem, Kasdin said. More recent studies show that typical bullies are the popular kids. Bullies are smart, too. They know exactly how far they can go.
Kasdin recalled one recent incident involving a girl who wrote on a Facebook page that another girl should die. The parents of the girl to whom the threat was directed called police.
But when the police showed up at the girl’s house, she simply told the officer she never threatened to hurt the girl, she only suggested the girl should die. The police legally couldn’t take any action against the bully, Kasdin said.
Such legal roadblocks are frustrating for parents of bullied children, who often feel as lost, alone and frustrated as their kids.
“You know you’re not the only ones going through it, but it feels like it,” said one mother, whose son, “J,” was bullied in seventh and eighth grades.
The Central Bucks resident learned about the support group last week at a local anti-bullying seminar. Her son, now a ninth-grader, is doing better. He recently stood up for himself in gym class after one of his bullies confronted him.
“You definitely see it working,” she added.
While the kids meet downstairs, their parents learn about anger management, effective confrontation and conflict management and coping skills. The Peace Center staff also will intervene on behalf of parents with school officials to resolve ongoing bullying issues.
Parents say talking with people going through the same experiences as them is beneficial. They often trade advice and ideas, especially about dealing with anger.
“L’s” mom said she doesn’t know what she’d have done without the Peace Center. Her daughter, now a fifth-grader, is doing better. The bullying has stopped.
“It was my last resort; I didn’t know where else to turn,” she said of the center.
The mom of “S” said the parents group has helped her deal with her daughter’s bullying in a more productive way with school officials.
“They helped me take a deep breath and say the things that needed to be said in a way that was rational and reasonable,” she said.
While she resisted attending the meetings at first, “S” now gets upset if she has to miss a support group meeting. She plans to do a Girl Scout badge project on bullying awareness.
What made the biggest difference for the girl, who’s now 13, is the ability to talk with girls her age who have shared the same bullying experiences.
“It helps me work through the issues I’m having,” “S” said. “I can hear their stories.”
While “S” no longer attends the school where she was bullied, she’s still coming to terms with her experience, her mom said.

“She isn’t there yet,” her mom added, “but she is on her way.”
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: jciavaglia@calkins.com; Twitter: @jociavaglia


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