It can be hard to acknowledge publicly that you’ve been bullied. It might be even tougher to admit you’ve practiced this kind of abusive behavior.
Yet bullying was discussed with surprising frankness during a Feb. 4 assembly at St. Mary Our Mother School in Horseheads. Held as part of Catholic Schools Week, the event featured five student presenters from Elmira Notre Dame High School: Kate Rominger, Spencer Bense, Taylor Drake, Sydney Youmans and Max Garten.
The quintet started by speaking with the 133-member St. Mary Our Mother student body on such points as how they define bullying; if they had ever witnessed bullying and how they reacted; whether they’d been a perpetrator or target of bullying; and how they can help stop bullying.
"It was really interactive. We asked a lot of questions," said Kate, a Notre Dame senior.
Students also reflected on what leads somebody to crave power and control by inflicting physical pain, emotional pain and discomfort upon others.
"That question came up about four times in a row," remarked Spencer, a senior. He ventured that bullies "probably don’t have a lot of friends and are trying to be cool — if you put someone down, that makes you look better." He added that bullies are perhaps victims of bullying at home, whereas Kate said some bullies may have been picked on earlier in life. She further observed that people who support bullies may do so out of fear the bullies will turn on them as well.
Spencer agreed that peer pressure plays heavily into bullying, with people either joining in or not speaking out against such behavior because they’d be taking a potentially unpopular stand. He also acknowledged to the Catholic Courier that peer pressure has caused him to slip in the past.
"I consider myself a good person and don’t like to hurt people," he said, but admitted he has copied some peers by yelling, "Go home freshman" at students who were younger and smaller — an action that, in retrospect, he rates as "stupid" because it was potentially hurtful.
Whereas bullying can be committed by an entire group, Spencer said groups of people can halt bullying as well: "Power in numbers — if you have one bully (against) five friends, that’s enough to get them to stop," he said, adding that he and the other Notre Dame presenters advocate for getting principals, teachers and/or parents involved.
The Feb. 4 event also dealt with the increasing frequency of cyberbullying via text messaging, e-mail and other electronic means. Kate said cyberbullying holds the danger of being potentially difficult to escape, and she added bullies are prone to taking greater liberties with electronic abuse than face to face.
To close out the assembly Kate, Spencer, Taylor, Sydney and Max re-enacted the parable of the Good Samaritan — portraying as bullies the men who robbed and beat up the traveler — and led the younger people in a "wave goodbye to bullying" group wave.
Marilyn Zinn, principal of St. Mary Our Mother, said the event was effective in reaching elementary-school students on such key points as discerning when just having fun crosses the line into bullying. She added that the message was enhanced by having people who can relate to bullying speak out.
"The main thing I felt was critical is that it was student to student," Zinn said. Kate observed that the program was successful in getting kids to open up, noting that some St. Mary Our Mother students said they’ve acted like bullies: "A lot of kids owned up to it and that was really interesting."
Zinn said she hopes her students will internalize the anti-bullying theme so they can make good choices now and in the years to come. The point seemingly got through right away to Stephen Kaschalk, a St. Mary Our Mother sixth-grader who volunteered three suggestions during the Feb. 4 event. He agreed with the need to seek out an adult, as he did when he encountered a bully problem in third grade; he advised making sure that if you stand up to bullies "to make sure they cannot harm you"; and he advocated for a third party to take a bully aside — "point out what they’re doing, because they might not even know they’re bullying."
Meanwhile, Kaitlin Barkley, a fifth-grader, cited the Declaration of Independence during the assembly as her reason to avoid bullying. Noting the famed passage that everybody is entitled to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," she stated that "if someone is being bullied, they cannot seek happiness."
The presentation on Feb. 4 was similar to one that Notre Dame students put on at Elmira’s Holy Family Elementary School this past October. Zinn said awareness-raising should be ongoing because all schools, including her own, have to contend with the reality of bullying.
"We would be very naive as administrators to think, ‘It doesn’t happen in my building,’ but it does," she remarked. "Kids tend to be very covert and you don’t see it, but the hurt feelings are still there."
She added that such pain can have long-term implications, possibly even leading to victims inflicting violence on themselves and/or their tormentors. In 1999, two teens who had been frequent targets of bullying killed 15 people — including themselves — during a shooting rampage at Colorado’s Columbine High School.
"I think too many people, they don’t look at the true bullying issues and they just ignore them," Zinn said. "But you can’t tell children to just ignore it. Those days are gone."