Dickon Pownall-Gray and Kiki Cahn
“I was 11.
One afternoon, on my way home from school, I walked around the corner hedge to get my bicycle. I didn’t even see the punch coming. It hit me so hard that I was paralyzed with shock. As my eyes began to refocus, I saw five older boys standing in a circle around me. They pushed me, spat at me and kicked me. The tallest boy grabbed me by my school tie, choking me. “Say your mother is a whore and a slag!” I refused. More kicks and punches. “Say your mother is a whore and a slag.” To my total disbelief, as if my voice was no longer mine, I heard myself saying, “My mother is a whore and a slag”. I almost threw up with shame, realizing what a coward I had just been. I adored my mother, yet I had just humiliated her in public and brought dishonor on my family. I lay dazed on the ground, hot tears of intense shame rolling down my face. How could I possibly look my mother in the face and tell her the truth of what I had just said about her? Sure enough, an hour later, too afraid to “rat” on the gang and tell the disgraceful truth, I told my mother that the terrible cuts and bruises were because I had fallen off my bicycle and crashed into a fence. I had always told her the truth, so she believed every word. Looking into her trusting and concerned eyes, instead of receiving love and protection, it was as if I was swallowed up into a secret, toxic, subterranean world of bullied shame and humiliation where I remained hopelessly trapped, unable to talk to my parents, for three awful years…” Dickon Pownall-Gray Bullying survivor Founder, Surviving Bullies Charity, Inc.
ies Dickon is the exception, not the rule. He was a boy who was continuously and brutally bullied for three years, with violence so severe that he was hospitalized several times. But he was also a boy who managed to eventually change schools and
escape the bullying and go on to lead a happy and successful life. Much more common is the child who, when severely and repeatedly bullied, enters a dangerous downward spiral. Chronic bullying has been shown to damage the brain, causing short-term memory difficulties, affecting a child’s ability to concentrate in class and remember information for tests. Schoolwork suffers, grades go down (Dickon suddenly failed several subjects in school during the years of bullying), children withdraw from their friends and family, their self-esteem is damaged as they start to believe what the bullies are saying about them, and they can literally be put on a different path in life than if they hadn’t been bullied. Who are these bullied children? They are no longer just the stereotypical loners or nerds. Typical targets of bullies are the children who are “different:” the child who is “too smart,” “too pretty,” “too wealthy,” or the child who is painfully shy or overweight, or has an accent. Why are we suddenly hearing so much about bullying? Hasn’t it been around forever? What has changed? First, yes, it’s been around forever. But it’s a bit like smoking. People always smoked but we didn’t realize how harmful it was. Once we learned that it was deadly, we started to work to reduce the incidence of smoking. We are finally starting to realize that bullying has painful and far-reaching consequences. Second, we used to primarily define bullying as physical in nature – the sandbox bully kicking sand in the little kids’ eyes, the tough brute who picked on weaker kids. Today we know that there are many more types of bullying, all characterized by three things: if it hurts, if it’s repetitive and if it’s perpetrated by a person or group with more power than the target, then it’s bullying. There are six different main types of bullying: physical, verbal, relational (spreading rumors, gossip), exclusional (deliberately leaving a target out in order to hurt him/her), sexual and cyberbullying. Third, technology has facilitated a whole new form of bullying, and this in turn has created new types of bullies. Today, cyberbullies don’t even have to look their targets in the eye; they can pick on them from anywhere, at any time, 24/7. Rumors, gossip and lies can be posted on social networking sites. Revealing photos can be passed from cell phone to cell phone (“sexting”), impossible to stop. The power of cyberbullying is immense. Bullies get their power from the “audience” – the bystanders that see how tough they are and how weak the target is. Before, at most a small group would witness the bullying. Now, it’s easy to humiliate a target and have thousands of people see it endlessly. A fake posting on a social networking site can tarnish a target’s reputation permanently. And the consequences? Suicide is one increasingly frequent outcome, when the pain and humiliation simply become too much for the young target to bear. It’s become so common it’s actually spawned a new word – “bully-cide.” So what is the Surviving Bullies Charity doing about all this? We developed and implemented “The School Climate Project.” The goals of the program are: To identify students who are being bullied and to empower these students to better handle their bullying situation. To identify emotionally distressed students and to intervene to
help these students. To provide succinct “School Climate” data analysis reports to school administrators so that they can take data-driven, tangible steps towards improving their school climate. To teach the entire school community about the negative impact that a tolerance for bullying has on the overall learning environment. To make school communities aware that academic research shows that chronic stress caused by bullying can damage the memory center of the teenage brain so that learning suffers. As professional business-people, we set out to develop a system that was highly automated (keeping it low-cost) and easily scalable to enable us to grow beyond Connecticut. First, in order to “find” the targets of bullying, working with the Yale Department of Psychology, we designed a comprehensive online questionnaire and database system that examines many aspects of emotional well-being such as anxiety, depression, self-esteem, bullying, weight bias, loneliness, connectedness to school, and peer relationships. Then we found a school system that had the courage to pilot the questionnaire. Joan Parker, the principal of Helen Keller Middle School in Easton CT, was immediately captivated by the idea of looking for kids in her school that were targets of bullying and finding ways to help them. She then persuaded the other schools in her district, John Read Middle School and Joel Barlow High School in Redding to come on board as well. From November 2008-March 2009, we put approximately 900 5th-9th graders through our program.
mat that appeals to today’s youth. There are also videos of noted experts in their field giving advice on nutrition and sleep, both of which have a dramatic impact on teenagers’ mood and emotional stability. A kid picks on you in math class because you get your numbers backwards. It might be tolerable if you’re rested and feeling good. But if you’re exhausted, had nothing to eat because you woke up late, and you’re on edge, you might blow up and retaliate. That can cause the bullying to escalate. How many teenagers (or parents) know that teenagers need 9.25 hours of sleep per night? How many know that using electronic devices late at night actually winds us up and delays sleep, even though it seems like relaxing down time? (To learn more about our Mean T(w)een VideoBook, or to download it, go to: www.survivingbullies.org and click on “VideoBook.” ) Second, for the children at emotional risk, we have outside consultant psychologists contact the families. Our psychologists may offer referrals to other doctors if requested, provide information about services the school offers that can help their child, or simply act as a concerned “sounding board.” Where are we now? Thanks in part to a grant from our main sponsor, People’s United Community Foundation in Bridgeport, CT, by the end of the school year, we’ll have evaluated almost 3000 students; 5th-9th graders in 9 different Connecticut public schools. Our psychologists will have con-
If it hurts, if it’s repetitive and if it’s perpetrated by a person or group with more power than the target, then it’s bullying. Although we originally designed the questionnaire to simply find targets of bullying, we soon realized that we actually had an “emotional distress” early warning system that can immediately identify not only children who are targets of bullying but also children who are at emotional risk, regardless of whether they are being bullied or not. We use different strategies to help these two groups of children. First, for the targets of bullying (approximately 10% at each school were being significantly affected by bullying, which correlates with national statistics), we sent their families our Mean T(w)een VideoBook. Several years ago, Dickon had written a workbook filled with practical advice for targets of bullying. We took the paper workbook and reformatted it so that it became an ‘interactive’ online book where students can click on diagrams, type their thoughts into text fields, and most importantly, watch 59 videos of mostly teenagers, themselves targets of bullying, talking about their own experiences and giving advice based on what worked for them. Each video is set to music, and the key points are highlighted at the end of each video with graphics. Not only does most of the advice come from their peers, but it’s in a for6 0 W E S T O N M A G A Z I N E G R O U P. C O M
tacted hundreds of families and we’ll have provided our Mean T(ween) VideoBook to hundreds of children who are subjected to bullying every day. In addition, after we analyze the data of each school, we present the results to the superintendent and the school administration, together with recommendations for improvement. We’ve found that school administrators have sound intuition about their students. But without the data to prove it, it’s hard to act on their intuition and even harder to justify spending money to improve weak areas. We provide them with data to support their intuition. The analysis documents where they are now and where they need to improve. The following year, when we test their students again, the data shows how well their investment of time and money has paid off. For example, in every school, the students say that the bullying occurs where adults are least present – on the bus, in the cafeteria, at recess, in the halls between classes. The data shows the percentage of students picked on in each of these locations (as well as others). At one school, we suggested the school “invest” in extra teacher presence on the playground.