By Connie Matthiessen
From President Obama to tween idol Miranda Cosgrove (iCarly) there is growing awareness of bullying and the toll it's taking on young lives.
That's the good news. The bad news is that bullying is still alive and well at many schools around the country, as Marie Newman discovered when her son started fifth grade in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, an affluent Chicago suburb. The boy was cyberbullied by classmates and taunted at school. When Newman spoke to school officials, she discovered that the school didn’t have an official anti-bullying policy, nor did administrators seem clear about how to tackle the problem.
"It wasn't that they didn't care," says Newman. "But principals and teachers these days have so much coming at them that they're overwhelmed." So Newman decided to do it herself. She teamed up with another parent, Jacqui DiMarco, and the two mothers launched an anti-bullying program at their childrens' school.
The first step? Seek as many allies as possible. Before approaching school district officials, Newman created a committee to explore the issue and gather information. “You want as many people in your corner as possible," Newman says. She recommends including bullying experts -- the YMCA is a good place to find contacts -- as well as teachers, child development experts, parents whose kids have been bullied -- even parents whose kids were bullies themselves. "Parents of kids who've bullied are like reformed smokers," she says. "They’ve become educated and are all about making it good.”
Newman also included high-end attorneys on her anti-bullying team. “We don't advocate suing anyone," she says. "But it's important for the parents to know their rights, and many can't afford to hire lawyers."
Next, gather as much evidence as you can to support the need for an anti-bullying program at your school. Newman and her group put the word out at school functions, and sent e-mails asking parents to contact them if their child had been bullied or knew anyone else who had.
“Bullying is a problem no one wants to talk about," Newman says. "But once word gets out, the floodgates seem to open. Soon people were calling us.” She cautions that it’s crucial to assure anonymity, since most parents fear that their child will be retaliated against if he or she is identified as a snitch.
“Our findings weren’t scientific,” Newman is quick to say. “Still, we gathered enough information from enough parents that we could make the case that bullying was a problem throughout the school district.”
Newman’s committee also did research to find out what a school anti-bullying program should look like. Newman drew on her background as a business and marketing consultant to tap every possible resource: “I did internet research, made cold calls, and called school districts that had existing programs," she says.
Today, there are many excellent anti-bullying organizations, and some have programs specifically designed to be used by schools, including: Olweus, No Bully, Community Matters, Educators for Social Responsibility, and PFLAG's Safe Schools program.
For more information on bullying and bullying prevention, see the new government website, Stop Bullying.gov.
In the end, Glen Ellyn school district officials decided not to go with a pre-packaged program, but to develop one of their own. Still, Newman's research paid off since it educated everyone involved about different approaches, what works, and what does not. Newman and other anti-bullying experts agree that, whatever approach you take, it's important to make sure to adapt any program to the specific needs of your individual school.
Newman emphasizes the importance of doing as much legwork as possible so school officials won't have to. “Most school administrators aren’t against the idea," she says. "They just don’t have the resources to make it happen. The more you can do ahead of time, the more likely you are to succeed."
When Newman's group had their case prepared (in the form of a written report and a short video that also appeared on the local news), they went to the school board with a series of recommendations. The board agreed to establish a district-wide anti-bullying program. A year later, some anti-bullying policies are already in effect, but Newman expects it will take about three years for the program to be fully implemented.
When you make your argument before school administrators or the school board, it's important not to go in with guns blazing. In fact, Newman urges parents to maintain a measured tone throughout the process. "It's hard for parents whose children have been bullied to stay calm -- this is a very emotional subject, and parents are understandably impassioned," she says. "But it's important to stay calm and professional -- and to be incredibly persistent. I tell parents, 'You have to be the most pleasant nuisance you can be.'"
Despite Newman's success, the new program came too late for her own son. "It's crucial to stop bullying early, or it can become embedded in the culture of a school and a kid will become a permanent target," she says. "He gave it another try last fall, and the bullying started up again on the first day of school." Still, Newman's story has a happy ending: Her son is doing well at a new school, and has lots of friends. "Now that he's in a healthy environment, he's thriving," she says.
Even though her son won't directly benefit from her work, Newman has no regrets. She knows the program she worked so hard to establish is going to help other children and families like hers. She and DiMarco’s experience even culminated in a book about what they've learned. When Your Child is Being Bullied: Real Solutions for Families, was published in August, 2011.