ACROSS AMERICA — America’s children are listening.
As we adults rage against, name-call and bully each other over wearing masks, over who we’re voting for next month, and over who’s right and who’s wrong about any one of several existential crises our country faces, the kids are tuned in.
And in response to an angry national conversation that seems somehow normalized in a year that has wrought so much change, America’s youths have something to say.
“It tells kids that it’s OK to do that because they’re seeing adults do it,” says Tahara Araujo, an 8-year-old who lives in New York state.
Kids are taught to look up to their elders, but as a collective, we adults are setting some stunningly poor examples with the insulting, degrading and condescending lengths we’ll go to make our point.
They want us to straighten up.
Tahara is one of nine young “upstanders” — kids who step in when they see other kids being bullied — Patch interviewed for Unity Day, observed Wednesday as part of National Bullying Prevention Month. They were identified by No Bully, a Patch news partner that offers bullying prevention programs to schools and does other work to end the cycle of torment that can have lifelong physical and emotional consequences.
Patch’s “Menace Of Bullies” series, now in its third year, is a national reporting and advocacy project aimed at raising awareness around bullying, a confounding national problem with life-changing — and, in some of the most tragic of bullying cases, life-ending — consequences. Patch journalists across America have been telling stories about what’s being done to protect children from unwanted and repeated aggressive behavior.
Elegant and powerful in the simplicity of their messages, the kids Patch interviewed cut through the complexity of bullying, which affects 1 in 3 U.S. schoolchildren, sparking a cascade of difficulties that can follow them their entire lives.
“Once someone bullies another person, the other person feels bad, and they bully another person, and that person feels bad, and then they bully another person,” says 7-year-old Cyan Stiker, who lives in New York state. “And that keeps going on and on and on and on.”
COMING THIS WEEK
On Thursday, Oct. 22, national writer Beth Dalbey, the project editor for Patch’s “Menace of Bullies” series, talks with No Bully trainer Melissa Schulz and others about student-centered approaches to end bullying.
Do reality television shows affect how we treat each other? Patch national writer Megan VerHelst will have some answers on Saturday, Oct. 24.
It’s worrisome to people such as No Bully’s Kathy Grey that today’s kids are starting school and coming of age in an America that some political analysts say hasn’t been this divided since the Civil War.
“They’re not blinded by what they’re hearing on news channels,” she says. “What kids are hearing — maybe not understanding but hearing — are negative comments, people railing against each other and not enough kindness.”
“Hey, That’s Not OK”
The way Grey sees it, the turmoil surrounding kids is the culmination of generations of failure by schools to nurture the innate ability of kids to feel empathy.
“If we don’t teach that message around kindness, what is this next generation going to grow up to be?” Grey says.
But she’s encouraged by kids’ response:
“There’s a revolution of young people really stepping up and saying, ‘Enough, we need to focus on how we can change this.’ ”
The chaos in the world around them appears to only strengthen their resolve.
“It’s important to be kind always,” Tahara Araujo says. But, she points out, kindness is especially important with so many crises bearing down hard on people’s lives.
Bullying — repeated hurtful and humiliating taunts hurled at another — takes many forms. There is no single profile of kids who are targeted or of those who bully. Bullying is nothing new.
It has always happened on the school playground, in the hallways and on the bus, and it still does. But increasingly, the internet and social media make it harder for kids to escape the relentless torments of online stalkers known as cyberbullies.
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Sidney Adams is a Massachusetts 15-year-old who manages her time on social media the way experts say kids should: She shuts off her devices when the back-and-forth becomes too overbearing.
But she recognizes the harm in the flurry of words.
“People are bored in quarantine, and as sad as it is, they just try to stir up drama or try to get attention by doing these things, so I think in some ways that treatment has gotten worse,” Adams says. “And on social media, where people can say anonymous things to people — that’s a big place for people to bully because they’re not just hiding behind a screen, they’re hiding behind being anonymous. …
“I also think the severity of it can be increased during corona because if you’re online and not really seeing anyone in isolation and you’re bullied online, then I think it can be really easy to feel alone and have it affect you,” she says. “That can really get in your head because you have a lot of time to sit and think, and these people can be coming at you from any time of day, really, because it’s not like anyone really has anything to do.”
While these online conversations are an ugly place to lurk, it’s also “easier to stand up for people when you see it happening,” she says. “What’s the harm in saying, ‘Hey, that’s not OK’?”
“It Starts At The Top”
When bullying is bias-based — that is, when kids are singled out for something so basic to their identity as the color of their skin, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity — the damage can be more profound, according to published research.
Before the coronavirus pandemic and the racial justice protests, the students most at risk for bullying included those from racial and ethnic minority groups and religions, LGBTQ youth and students with physical and mental disabilities.
Researchers can’t yet quantify whether kids of color are being isolated and marginalized more under the strain of the pandemic and amid persistent racial strife, Grey says, but there’s some anecdotal evidence they are.
“We haven’t gotten that data extrapolated, but we know it’s true from our conversations with educators and parents that it has increased, certainly with Asian American indigenous populations,” Grey says. “Those kids are being targeted to a greater extent than they were because of the pandemic.”
At least one published study supports the experts’ hunch that Asian Americans have experienced more verbal harassment, shunning and cyberbullying since the pandemic began. In September’s “They Blamed Me Because I Am Asian,” a quarter of the 1,000 young Asian American adults queried said they had been targets of racist acts.
Among the stories that emerged:
A group of older boys who followed a 14-year-old from Dallas home from school called him slurs and shouted, “You have the Chinese virus.”
A 17-year-old in San Francisco reported that when she sat down on a commuter train, the woman in the seat next to her glared, covered her face with her shirt and moved to another seat at the next stop. “She only acted this way when I was near her,” the teen reported
A 17-year-old was bullied with profane, racist slurs promoting stereotypes about Asian diets and was told she should kill herself.
America’s children are listening, absorbing the words of everyone from their parents to the president of the United States, who repeatedly refers to the COVID-19 virus as the “Chinese virus” or “China virus.”
They’re calling out the adults at whose knees they’re supposed to be learning how to behave and conduct themselves.
“Most kids look up to adults and try to do what they do,” says Reggie Forrester, a 9-year-old from New York state who thinks adults need to be careful about the messages they’re sending to kids when they talk about sensitive topics.
Those adults include their parents, relatives, friends and even the president.
“Donald Trump could try to be just a tiny bit nicer, because some of the things he says come across really, really rude,” Reggie says.
Asa Mills, a Georgia 6-year-old, thinks so, too.
“Acting like Donald Trump is a really, really bad idea,” he says. When asked why, Asa replies, “Because he’s so mean.”
It’s not just politicians who need to check their behavior, says Blake Cooper, a 17-year-old from New York state.
“It starts at the top. A big public figure — not even a public figure, just like someone’s parents — learns this and was able to teach that to their kids in the same way, those negative things can be passed down,” he says.
“Discriminatory behavior is taught. It is not something that you just wake up at birth and you’re just like, ‘I hate these groups of people specifically.’ It’s an experience that happens. It’s sometimes taught, it’s something that is learned.”
A good example of what Cooper is talking about is found in an experience that New York state 7-year-old Piper Hutz Long had in an online game platform when another young player stereotyped Black people, saying they “make good servants.”
She reported the player to the gaming platform — a reflection of the call for more kindness and justice that No Bully’s Grey sees taking place among America’s youth.
Adams, the Massachusetts teen, shares another example. She says it was common in her middle school for kids to be bullied and stigmatized around issues of mental health and sexuality.
Most of the bias and bullying against LGBTQ kids has subsided as she and her classmates have gotten older, Adams says, but it still happens.
“People definitely think about it,” she says, sharing the experience of a gay friend whose gestures of friendship toward other guys at school is often met with “ 'I’m straight, don’t talk to me,' like that kind of thing.”
“I feel like it should be more normalized than that,” she says. “They don’t deserve to be treated differently because of who they love. … The world has changed so dramatically, and yet we still deal with things like that.”
“I Don’t Feel Good About It”
No Bully’s Grey thinks that with enough emphasis in schools on empathy and kindness and student-led solutions teams, kids generations from now will shake their heads in wonderment that such vicious treatment was ever commonplace.
Her perspective about bullying is informed by her career — as a Head Start teacher for kids living in poverty and as an arbitrator who resolved grievances for a major airline — and by her own experiences as a seventh-grader. Her classmates weaponized charity and bullied her as the “new poor kid” when she showed up in a sweater everyone recognized as a castoff donated to a church closet for the needy.
Though it happened to her decades ago, Grey hasn’t forgotten “how hurtful it is for a child to be called a name because of things they cannot change or that go to the core of who they are.”
Schools weave bullying prevention into their curricula to varying degrees, often at the direction of state legislatures.
Anti-bullying statutes are in place in every state, and some have real teeth — though No Bully says its research shows that criminalizing bullying and cyberbullying isn’t nearly as effective as preventing bullying in the first place. Very little, if any, money is provided to schools to implement programs such as social-emotional learning.
No Bully works with schools to provide leadership coaching, staff training and the student-centered solution programs where Grey sees kids picking up the gauntlet to help end bullying.
Sidney Adams isn’t sure bullying will ever disappear completely.
“But I think there’s a lot we can do to prevent it, and a lot we can do to make it less common, and I think there’s a lot to teach to people about what to do if they are bullied that can make it less severe,” she says.
In other words, kids can be upstanders and let the targets of bullies know they did nothing wrong, they shouldn’t be embarrassed and the problem is with the kid doing the bullying.
“Bullies don’t just bully for fun,” she says. “They have some kind of reason, even if it’s subconsciously, for making fun of people.”
The important thing is to send a clear message to kids who are bullied, Adams says: “They deserve just as much as the bully, they’re worth just as much and they don’t deserve the treatment they’re getting.”
Upstanding doesn’t require grand gestures.
Sometimes it’s as simple and non-confrontational as taking a seat next to a student sitting alone in the lunchroom, or inviting that kid to join the group. At other times, being an upstander means speaking up.
When one of Adams’ classmates referred to another student by a racial slur, she called it out — and let the bully know that she and her friends don’t talk that way, so the student had a choice to make about hanging out with the group.
Piper Hutz Long advises the “sweet truth.”
“I think you’re making them feel bad,” she might say. “How would you like it if I did that to you?”
Other younger kids — Asa Mills, Tahara Araujo and Cyan Stiker — all say that depending on the situation, it’s a good idea to figure a way out of the situation before standing up to a bully. If the situation is physically threatening, they say, get an adult.
“When I see someone being bullied, I say that’s not nice,” says 7-year-old Theodore Kolack of New York state.
But don’t be afraid, says Ella Metcalf, an 11-year-old from Texas.
As a fourth-grader, she was the new kid in class and heard one girl tell another: “Why don’t you just wipe off your freckles, they’re so ugly.”
“I just went over and said, ‘Hey, that’s not very nice to say, and I don’t think you would like me telling you that, so could you please say sorry to her?’ ” Ella says. “The mean girl got really quiet. … No one has ever told her to say sorry.
“She’s said other mean things to other kids,” Ella says, “and no one’s ever stood up to her.”
Ella says that day after school, the girl with the freckles told her mom, “There’s this new girl who stood up for me.” They invited her to lunch, the two girls started hanging out and they’re now friends.
Reggie Forrester says he’ll handle things differently the next time he sees another kid being bullied.
“I admit I was a bystander, and I don’t feel good about it,” he says. “It’s not nice to let someone else be bullied, and you’re just watching them and not doing anything about it.
“It’s just not very nice.”
Videos by David Allen, Patch photo editor.