NEW ORLEANS — The effects of bullying in school have lasting and powerful effects, as demonstrated by the speakers during an anti-bullying summit held Saturday morning at Loyola University.
“I was a victim of bullying in high school,” Orleans Parish School Board member Sarah Usdin told the group of students from four high schools.
She warned that she might get emotional — but the emotions that surfaced while talking about her experience decades ago took over more than Usdin herself expected.
Through tears that refused to subside, Usdin spoke briefly about skipping school and needing “a lot of counseling” because of the bullying.
“There obviously still is pain,” Usdin said.
“It’s important for you all to set the stage,” Usdin told the students, and said it was critically important for them to push their schools in a positive direction toward changing how bullying is tolerated and reported.
The summit was hosted by Loyola communications students following a week of hour-long workshops held for students at middle and high schools. During February, the group planned to stage 20 such workshops at five schools.
The group’s “Step up, Reach out” campaign is part of the national Bateman Case Study Competition for public relations students, designed to give students the opportunity to apply classroom education to creating and implementing full public relations campaigns.
In addition to the summit and workshops, the group has spoken before the Orleans Parish School Board and New Orleans City Council.
Loyola student Dwayne Fontenette said that based on their research, the team members decided to focus their campaign on the role of bystanders.
Creating awareness about bullying among students aged 10 to 19 was the topic assigned nationally by the Public Relations Student Society of America, the sponsors of the competition.
This fall, Fontenette said, their research involved parent focus groups, surveying students, and interviewing teachers and administrators. In their research, they found that 85 percent of bullying happens with witnesses present, Fontenette said.
More than half of the bystanders admitted to doing nothing to stop the bullying, he said.
Fontenette said the researchers came up with the motto “Geaux KIND,” with each letter of “KIND” representing a different message and corresponding workshop activity.
For instance, teamwork activities arranged around the letter K represent the idea of “Keep others included.” Trivia games promote discussion for “Inform an adult.” “Never bully others” explores the consequences of bullying — both for the victim and the bully.
“Research shows that bullies are more likely than non-bullies to become victims of violent crime,” Fontenette said. He noted that the prevalent gun violence in New Orleans illustrates why bullying should matter to everyone.
Loyola student Leah Whitlock said that the teams talked with the kids about the consequences of bullying on the victims, from lowering self esteem and grades, causing kids to skip school, and in more extreme, but not uncommon cases, to depression and suicide.
Whitlock also described indirect bullying that can have profound effects — such as excluding others from groups and spreading rumors, types of bullying more common among girls.
For the “Decide to be more than a bystander” message, Fontenette said it’s a challenge to change a culture in which kids told him that “snitches get stitches.”
He said developing trust between teachers and students can help, as well as enacting policies in schools that allow anonymous reporting.
At the summit, Jill Egle spoke about her own experience of being called “retard” instead of her name, and being teased, left out and picked last.
“My school years were unhappy,” Egle said. “So many times I wanted to be like the normal kids.”
Egle fought in the state of Virginia to have the word “retarded” changed to “intellectually or developmentally disabled.”
“We didn’t want to be called retards anymore,” Egle said, “We asked for dignity.” Egle said her efforts helped inspire national changes in legislation — and despite her own intellectual disability, she found a role as a leader and advocate.
“People fail to realize that everyone is important and everyone has a purpose,” she said, then pointed to her own skills and accomplishments.
The journey was long, Egle said, but along the way she was approached by someone who wrote a book about her — “recognizing my abilities, not my disabilities.”
Egle reminded the high school students that their words and actions can be very powerful for positive change, and encouraged them to reach out to others who might be considered different.
“Are you brave enough to set examples of tolerance?” Egle asked. “Are you brave enough to stand up to bullies?”