If you are a counselor in the schools, you probably do not need to have a specific month dedicated to bullying for you to be aware of the magnitude of the problem. Bullying has probably existed since the dawn of time--certainly it was around when I was in school, and I'm sure it was around when my parents were in school. One need look no further than the now-classic movie A Christmas Story to see how the world was divided--"you were either a bully, a toady, or one of the nameless rabble of victims." (source: www.imdb.com) In this movie, Ralphie ultimately stands up to his bully, Scott Farkus, and wins. We move on to the family dinner scene where Ralphie's mother covers for him with his father and all is ultimately right with the world.
Unfortunately, many bullying scenarios today are ending in tragedy. ABC's 20/20 dedicated a program this Friday night to two of their stories. One, Jamey Rodemeyer, took his own life this September after repeated harassment since he had come out as gay in his school. The other, Larry King, was shot several years ago by a classmate after being repeatedly bullied for expressing attractions to other boys and wearing women's clothing to school. You can see the stories in their entirety here. We all remember the story last year of Tyler Clementi who killed himself at Rutgers University after videos of an intimate encounter between him and another student of the same sex surfaced online. Sadly, there are still many other scenarios like the ones listed above, for example multiple suicides in Minnesota.
What can we, as school counselors, learn from all of this? Several things:
- Bullying certainly knows no stereotype--any student from any demographic can be affected. However, students who either self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) or who are perceived by their peers to be LGBT are at an especially high-risk. 86.2% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 44.1% reported being physically harassed and 22.1% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. (source: www.glsen.org)
- In the past, bullying might occur at school or at after-school activities, but students could go home and find some respite from the harassment. Today, however, with the internet and websites like Twitter, Facebook, and Formspring, the bullying can go on literally 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Cyberbullying is a now regular occurrence amongst our students. Further, while verbal harassment, physical harassment, and exclusionary tactics can be visible to school personnel, cyberbullying can remain invisible to parents, teachers, administrators, and counselors unless someone comes forward.
How do we, as school counselors, help to address these issues with our students, based on this knowledge of the "new bullying?" A few thoughts:
- Find out what your school's plan is when it comes to addressing bullying. Creating a bully-free, harassment-free climate always starts at the top--what education and resources are being given to the adults in the building about bullying, harassment, and cyberbullying? Is everyone on the same page? Videos such as this one can be helpful to show school staffs the importance they have in helping to create a safe-schools climate.
- Next, what preventative measures are taken--is there a place in the school where bullying is more likely to take place (like locker rooms) and how is that being addressed? Are there classroom or school lessons on bullying, on harassment, on cyberbullying? Who is involved in designing these lessons--counselors, administrators, security officers, school resource officers, and perhaps most importantly, students? Who is responsible for delivering the lessons--is it just the counselor, or is the whole school involved? Are there ways to follow up on these lessons as the year goes on?
- Are there resources at the school, county or district, or state level that you can draw from? In Virginia there are guidelines from the state as well as personnel who are available to come to schools to lead discussions or lessons.
- What is the school plan for how bullying is to be reported and then the protocol that will be followed to investigate and support the students involved? Several schools have instituted online reporting of bullying forms like this that go to a school official who then starts the process of looking into the incident or situation.
Why is this important? As demonstrated above, children are dying because of the harassment. However, there are other ramifications of bullying and harassment. Attendance--31.7% of LGBT students missed a class and 32.7% missed a day of school in the past month because of feeling unsafe, compared to only 5.5% and 4.5%, respectively, of a national sample of secondary school students. Grades--The reported grade point average of students who were more frequently harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender expression was almost half a grade lower than for students who were less often harassed (2.8 versus 2.4). (source: www.glsen.org) Students who are bullied are more likely to stop coming to school, and they are more likely to have lower grades. One of our main missions as school counselors is to remove barriers to academic success for all of our students--bullying certainly qualifies as one of these barriers.
As a school counselor, the strong relationships you have built with your students, their families, teachers, and administrators will be your biggest ally in helping to identify bullying situations and then work to resolve them. The more comfortable your school population is in talking to you, the more likely it is that you will be able to find out about possible issues early and help to diffuse them before they become bigger and harder to deal with. Further, it is important to check-in and follow-up regularly with the student who is being bullied to make sure they feel supported and as if something is being done. Additionally, if you have students who identify as LGBT, realize that they are at a statistically higher-risk of being bullied. This group of students may need more frequent check-ins as well as allies within the school--if your school has a gay-straight alliance or other LGBT club, that is one support that they can access. There are further supports for these students and their families at the Trevor Project, PFLAG, GLSEN, and the It Gets Better Project.
A final two thoughts. First, as the ABC 20/20 videos linked above discuss, as school counselors, we are responsible to not only assist those students who are being bullied, but also any of the bullies who are on our case-loads. It is highly possible that the bullies have some issues in their past and present lives which may have contributed to the role they have taken on. They too will need support from us, perhaps through restorative justice practices or through working on empathy. Lastly, as in all things that we do, we must be mindful of any counter-transference that may occur when we are in the midst of working through a bullying situation. Were you bullied in school? Do you identify as LGBT and feel strongly about working with those students? Or were you perhaps, in a former life, a bully? It is always important for us to monitor our own thoughts and feelings and seek out supervision and guidance from someone in a supervisory or consultant role, and if need be a personal therapist, if we feel that these past roles and situations are affecting our work with our students.