Put the brakes on that oft-repeated phrase: "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 at a "See a Bully, Stop A Bully: Make a Difference" landmark national conference hosted by the AFT and NYSUT last month in Albany. They listened so hard there was no other sound in a packed room. Eventually, there were sniffles, and sobbing.
Nabozny was a slight seventh-grader when the long-lasting school torment began, now chronicled in a short documentary called Bullied produced by the Southern Povery Law Center. Over the years he was pushed, urinated on, taunted by name calling of "faggot" and "queer," fondled, kicked and beaten so viciously he had to have surgery.
All of this happened in school, where he hid, ran and dodged. Agonizing over what was wrong with him — since victims eventually internalize messages — he attempted suicide, and then twice left home. The second time was with permission of his parents; his tormenters had threatened to kill him.
During the dark days, "teachers made a huge difference in my life," Nabozny said. One teacher ate lunch with him every day in her classroom because the cafeteria wasn't safe for him.
Later, he brought a landmark federal lawsuit against school 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 the suit against the administrators for failing to stop the harassment.
"The emotional climate of a school is just as important as standardized tests. We have human lives here at stake," said NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler. "This conference was a result of the vision of NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi, who believes that a teacher's union plays a critical role in providing educators the resources necessary to address social justice issues like bullying."
NYSUT and the American Federation of Teachers advocate engaging students in civic responsibility, and using training and education in 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.
By July 2012, the Dignity for All Students Act, a law NYSUT advocated strenuously for, will take effect in New York's schools. It protects students from harassment and bullying. Kids are often bullied for their weight, ethnicity, style of dress, height, looks, social status or sexual orientation.
Many of the workshop presenters agreed that schools need to have clear, consequential ground rules for combatting bullying.
"Kids are killing themselves because of the harassment they're receiving," Nabozny said. "All of you can be leaders in your schools, your districts, your community." While no state criminalizes bullying, he reminded the teachers, school health care professionals, school-related professionals and administrators at the conference, assault and sexual harassment are criminal activities.
Zero tolerance doesn't work, he said. He cautioned teachers against punishing students for making offensive comments. Instead, they should use the opportunity as a teachable moment to change behavior. That includes talking to students about what's offensive and what's personal.
Solutions to bullying are found in prevention, and in a comprehensive approach that includes diversity training, teaching skills of empathy, and dealing with the victim, the bully and bystanders.
"Instead of being a bystander, be an upstander," is the motto used by school counselor Stacey Allen, a Phelps Clifton Springs FA member, and Donna Borrelli, PCS Aides and Secretaries Association member. They started a school anti-bullying pilot program last year based on the "Bully Bust" project from the musical Wicked. They train students, who are given lime green shirts, as peer leaders.
"We need to reach the kids in school who are watching it happen and wish they knew what to do," Nabozny said. "Kids are ready to do something."
George Anthony, a Staten Island teacher and trainer for the United Federation of Teachers' "Stand Up and Lead" anti-bully program, works with students, parents and community members in districts on how to use non-confrontational language in everyday conversation. "We're giving parents an owner's manual on how to take the lead," he said.
Participants are also taught how to respond specifically to a bullying situation, using words like "Let me tell you how I saw it," to the bully; or "Is there something I can do?" to the victim.
"Those who are bullied suffer long-term social, academic, psychological and physical consequences," said Carol Blank, co-owner of Utterly Global, LLC, a bullying-prevention training firm. Sixty percent of bullying happens at school. Unlike conflict, which is not intended to cause harm and can be resolved through mediation and talking, "bullying is abuse," she said.
Blank recommends schools use surveys to assess school climate, teachers' perceptions, students' perceptions and characteristics of classrooms.
On-the-spot intervention for bullying should include stopping the action and keeping calm. Always report an incident, no matter how minor. "It can be a cry for help or a warning sign," Blank said.
Bullying is on the rise because of technology, Blank noted. Students have less of a sense of a connection with actual people and consequences. "It's easy to hide behind a computer and be anonymous."
National Education Association trainers Diane Gonzales and Diane Schneider encouraged educators to teach students to be allies by keeping targeted kids from being left alone on the bus or in the cafeteria.
Teachers can put up "safe zone" signs to let kids know they can talk to them.