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Editorial: Interrupting Harassment and Bullying

Empowering bystanders to intervene, students to set boundaries.

With a controversial and much discussed new movie, "Bully," coming out this week, local school districts continue to wrestle with the issue of bullying in the schools.

And while school officials are still looking at "cyber-bullying" as novel and separate phenomena, it's fair to say that for students, there is little distinction between the teasing, harassment and worse that happens on school grounds and the school bus and the nastiness, rumors and character assassination that takes place online. The combined effect, including the graphic, lasting, visceral attacks that are possible online, can make school literally unbearable for some, and more than unpleasant for others.

As adults, we can only be thankful that we escaped this environment before the advent of cell phone cameras and videos, instant posting to websites and other technological "advances." (I have long believed that middle school, by its very existence, is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.)

Fairfax County undertakes an annual survey of all students in grades 8, 10 and 12 that gives insight into the lives of teens.

More than 30 percent of Fairfax County students recently surveyed reported being depressed in the past year.

This is probably not unrelated to the fact that 56 percent of students surveyed reported being bullied while 43 percent admitted to bullying others. This is consistent with findings from other areas, with 8th grade as a bullying "hot-spot." In Fairfax County, 62 percent of 8th graders said they had been bullied and 55 percent admitted to bullying others. Of course there is some overlap in the two groups.

"We've seen that over 40 percent of the students who say they have been bullied have themselves bullied someone," Mary Ann Panarelli, director of Fairfax County Public School's Intervention and Prevention Services department told Connection reporter Alex McVeigh. "It's not a matter of punishing it out of the system, it's a matter of enacting a culture change."

In seeking that culture change, much of the outreach is dedicated to the bystander, the person witnessing someone being bullied, and their ability to make the bullying behavior less acceptable.

Students who witness bullying can say to the perpetrator: "Why would you say something like that? Why would you do that?"

Panarelli added: "Things like going up to the victim after, saying 'I saw what happened, and don't agree with it,' helps that victim from feeling isolated."

It's the sort of lesson that can start very young. We can learn to say: "This is not right," even in the face of fierce peer pressure. This ability to set boundaries which can begin in preschool will serve our children well later in life when they are resisting being a passenger in a car driven by someone who has been drinking or refusing to participate in rumors and ostracizing.

This starts with learning empathy, to care for animals, people and things who are vulnerable and face challenges.