Put the brakes on that oft-repeated children's saying: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Mean words not only leave deep imprints, they usually escalate to slugs and kicks.
If you don't believe it, just listen to bullying victim Jamie Nabozny. That's what 250 people did Nov. 14 at the "See a Bully, Stop A Bully: Make a Difference" conference hosted by the American Federation of Teachers and NYSUT in Albany. They listened so hard there was no other sound in a room filled to capacity. Eventually, there were sniffles, and sobbing. [VIDEO: See the WTEN news report on the conference.]
Nabozny was a slight seventh-grader when the torment began. a long-lasting painful school journey now chronicled in a short documentary called "Bullied" created by the Southern Poverty Law Center. He was ridiculed for being gay, pushed, urinated on, taunted by names of "faggot" and "queer," fondled, and beaten so viciously he had to have surgery. All of this happened in middle and high school -- in class, in the halls, in the rest rooms. Agonizing over what was wrong with him-- since victims eventually internalize messages-- he attempted suicide, and then twice left home, the second time for good with permission of his parents. After the last beating, he knew his tormentors would likely make good on their threats to kill him. [VIDEO: View the trailer for "Bullied."]
While repeated attempts to get administrators to respond failed, "teachers made a huge difference in my life,"
Nabozny said. He had two classrooms where he felt safe, and one teacher let him have lunch with her every day in her classroom.
Later, he brought a lawsuit against the administrators who failed to protect him; who told him "boys will be boys" and he should expect to be bullied if he was open about being gay. He won a federal landmark lawsuit against administrators for failing to stop the harassment.
"Kids are killing themselves because of the harassment they're receiving, " Nabozny said after receiving a standing ovation at the conference. "All of you can be leaders in your schools, your districts, your community. While no state criminalizes bullying, assault and sexual harassment are criminal activities, he reminded the group of teachers, school health care professionals, School-Related Professionals and administrators,
Zero tolerance does not work, he said -- instead, educators need to seize every teachable moment.
"Stop in the middle of what you're doing and be specific," he said, encouraging teachers to talk to students about what's offensive and what's personal.
Solutions can be found in prevention, and a comprehensive approach including diversity training, teaching skills of empathy and dealing with the victim, the bully and bystanders.
"We need to reach the kids in school who are watching it happen and wish they knew what to do," he said. "Kids are ready to do something."
"The emotional climate of a school is just as important as standardized tests," said Lee Cutler, NYSUT secretary-treasurer who oversees social issues, to spontaneous applause. "We have human lives here at stake. We believe the solution to bullying epidemic is more complex than blaming the bully," he said.
NYSUT and AFT advocate engaging students in civic responsibility, and training and education are carried out throughout schools and communities to empower bystanders to intervene, to ensure the emotional and physical safety of the victim, and to come to understand the motivation of the bully.
Workshops were held throughout the day-long conference to provide models to educators and school health care professionals on how to implement school and community programs to prevent and reduce bullying. Topics included strategies to address bias, bullying and suicide, legal and administrative issues for schools, empowering bystanders, and cyber-bullying and sexting.
Among the many people moved by the Nabozny's documentary was Jessica Monsees, a physical education and health teacher and member of Red Creek Teachers Association in Wayne County. She viewed "Bullied" last year with students; 75,000 copies have already been distributed and copies are available to teachers for free. "It was so inspirational I had to see him in person," she said. "I want to tell my middle schoolers: it's not just a video, he's a person. I met him."