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Standing up against bullying: Bystanders, teachers can play a key role

Extras wait for their opportunity to be part of an anti-bullying video at Geneva High School.
Extras wait for their opportunity to be part of an anti-bullying video at Geneva High School.

Lisa Gillette said she sets the tone immediately in her health classes at Geneva High School: Bullying will not be tolerated.

Gillette said she addresses that right from the start. And if she hears a student say something unkind about another student, the offending student must give three compliments to the target.

But while she said she tries to create a friendly environment, she knows it’s still possible bullying happens on her watch.

“I don’t, by any means, think that it doesn’t happen in my classroom,” she said. “You can’t see everything.”

Experts say such an aggressive approach is necessary, on many levels, if bullying is to be prevented. And many can play a role in finding solutions once bullying takes place. Those bullied often are instructed to tell a trusted adult.

Experts say teachers can report the incident to the proper official at a school. Bystanders can either step in or back up the target’s report. Parents of the target can watch for signs that their children are bullied and work on their behalf once the issue is identified.

Parents of the child who has bullied can take the case seriously, rather than dismiss the event as an instance of “kids will be kids.” And a principal can establish a school’s culture and create a situation in which such action is not tolerated.

The role of the bystander has become a hot topic. Experts say students who look the other way are giving bullies a green light to engage in such behavior. But if fellow students were to speak up instead, the culture would be one in which bullies understand their behavior isn’t welcome.

Geneva High School counselor Cindy Kovach said bullying was a focus of a recent school program, with the idea being that a culture could be created in which “people won’t stand for it and watch it.” And Geneva also was the site of a recent music video shoot for the song “Stand for the Silent,” which featured Stella Katsoudas, lead singer of the group Sister Soleil. Katsoudas, who said she was “severely bullied” as a teen, aims to “erase the bystander effect.” The video she helped create features bystanders stepping in to stop a bullying situation.

“Our solution is simple,” Katsoudas said. “Stand up for your fellow student.”

Lisa Campise, a counselor at McDole Elementary in District 302, said bystanders have great power to stop a bullying event.

“If your best friend is teasing someone, you can say something,” she said. “You can stop it.”

There are many resources available for others involved in the process. Geneva native Julie Nicolai, who teaches in Glen Ellyn, wrote a book called “Road Map Through Bullying,” in which there are role-playing scripts that cover scenarios. Nicolai, who said she “just got sick of seeing kids get bullied,” said she has learned how to spot bullying by facial expressions. And she said she gives a speech early on to her class, similar to Gillette’s, in which she says, “if anybody is planning to bully anybody or even thinking about it, they’d better stop now.”

“If they try it, they’re going to have consequences for their behavior,” said Nicolai, who added an early solution in the process is to have students write an apology. She identifies different levels of bullying for different ages, and appropriate actions for each one – from eye-rolling to hitting a fellow student so hard that hospitalization is required.

“I came up with a paper so a teacher could know that if a student does this, here’s what you do,” she said.

Parents are urged to bring such cases to their children’s teachers. Sometimes, a child will describe a bullying problem. Sometimes, it’s not so easy. Parents might be able to spot changes in behavior from their children that could be caused by a bullying situation. Julie Hertzog, the director of the Pacer Center’s National Bullying Prevention Center, said sometimes youths don’t want to tell anybody when they are bullied. Parents can look for drastic changes in their kids’ behavior – perhaps their grades go down, or they might come up with reasons not to go to school.

In that case, parents can alert someone at their child’s school. Campise said she wants to hear from parents who suspect bullying. She said if she were in their shoes, she would have the same approach.

“Parents have every right to be upset,” she said. “I wouldn’t want my kids to be bullied. I would be on the phone, too. I would want to know what you are going to do to make sure my kid is going to be safe today.”

The answer to that question might come from a principal, with guidance from a school district’s policy. Robert Wallace, who writes a syndicated column that appears in the Kane County Chronicle, dealt with bullying experiences in his school career. He was a teacher, coach, counselor and principal. In his role as principal, he said, a “common sense” approach worked best. He said a principal can set the tone for how such incidents will be handled.

“When a bully is sent to me, all incidents must be reported to the principal,” he said of his policy. “I must know about it on the first occasion. There is a parent conference, and the parent can’t say that they can’t come to school. If it’s a proven bully, this bully stays home until that parent comes to school. They come to school, and they meet with me, and it’s made clear that this discussion is not going to happen on this campus again. … And the next time there is a bully incident, the police are called.”

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