Norwalk schools making strides in combating bullying
By Rita Papazian
Posted: Monday, January 31, 2011

A diverse audience of parents, children and professionals in the field of education, came away with a common thread of information from a talk on bullying organized by the leadership team of the Youth Enrichment Program at Stepping Stones Children's Museum in Norwalk Sunday. That is, everyone --children and teens, parents, educators and even the state Department of Education--must play a role in combating the problem of bullying.

Twenty-five percent of Connecticut's high school students and 35 percent of the state's ninth graders have been bullied or harassed on school property in 2009. In addition, high school boys in Connecticut who were bullied about their perceived sexual orientation were four times more likely than other boys to have attempted suicide at least once, according to statistics reported in 2005. Also, nearly one-in-four (23 percent) of Connecticut high school students reported being harassed at school in 2009 because of their weight, size or physical appearance. Plus, according to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 900,000 U.S. high school students reported being cyber-bullied in 2007.

Elaine Zimmerman, executive director of the Connecticut Commission on Children, presented these statistics during the forum, in which Dickon Pownall-Gray, president and founder of the Surviving Bullies charity, joined a panel of local high school students addressing the topic, "Bullying and How to Prevent it."

The two-hour program, moderated by Chris Myles of Wilton, a student at the Academy of Information Technology and Engineeringin Stamford, included a question and answer session with members of the audience of more than 100 attendees. The program emphasized the role that everyone can play in combating and eliminating bullying in the school environment. Not only should students, parents, teachers and school administrators take an active role to address the issue, but also, Zimmerman noted, in 2008, the state passed a law, An Act Concerning School Learning Environment, requiring every school board to implement a bullying prevention strategy.

The law requires the state Department of Education to develop model policies and also that bullying prevention must become an in-service training topic for school personnel.

However, 59 school districts have not revised their bullying policies in response to the state law and 14 percent of Connecticut schooldistricts provide no bullying prevention training to staff. Also, as Zimmerman noted, private schools do not come under the governance of the state Department of Education in regard to the bullying law; therefore, any actions private schools take to address bullying is left to their own discretion.

Here in Norwalk, as two of the seven high school student panelists noted, much has been accomplished in combating the problem of bullying. In fact, Brien McMahon High School senior Arianna Bailey, who prior to the program discussed how she had been bullied in middle school, told the audience that at her high school there is "virtually no bullying."


Bailey attributes this to two factors: First, Brien McMahon is very diverse and the students are accustomed to differences; second, the high school has implemented a program titled House, now in its second year. The way House works is the entire school has been divided by gender into small groups of 10 to 12 students drawn from all four grades. A faculty member leads the group in discussion of any issues that the students may have. These sessions take place twice a month. The groups are randomly selected and Bailey said, "give the students a chance to connect with each other and with a faculty member they can trust."

"It's like going to your own home," Bailey said.

Norwalk High School sophomore Emilsa Yanes, a member of the museum's YESS program, which offers training and opportunities for youth leadership among other initiatives, has also been a target of bullying.

She shared past incidents of her peers targeting her through Facebook. She urged young people to join volunteer programs to expand their friendships and not to put all their personal information on Facebook because "you don't know what people will do with it."

Like in Norwalk, other local schools are also making strides to combat bullying.

Danbury High School students Courtney Jackson and Shannon Sullivan, are members of an anti-bullying program called "In Our Shoes," a faith-based project from King Street United Church of Christ in Danbury. The project invites middle or high school students who have been bullied to submit a pair of shoes, along with an index card telling their story. The shoes are part of a display that travels to area schools, churches and other organizations to help people visualize the experiences of children and teens affected by bullying. If the students identify the reasons they feel they were bullied, then a different color shoelace is attached for each area of bullying. Some of the categories include race, ethnicity, national origin, disability, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender, religion, activity and socioeconomic level.

Before the program began, Sullivan's mother Cheryl, whose 12-year-old daughter Erin also attended the forum, discussed Shannon's personal experience as a bully target. The harassment came when Shannon was on the volleyball team and one of her peers thought she shouldn't be on the team because of her performance on the court. Reflecting upon her daughter's experience Cheryl said, "Fortunately, she's a very strong person. She has a very strong sense of self and was able to work herself through it by talking with friends and family."

Jackson said the project was started by youth who have experienced bullying or have a friend or sibling who has been bullied. She and Shannon encourage anyone who witnesses bullying to say something to a teacher. The panelists encouraged bystanders to show support to the person targeted either by going up to them and expressing support for them or making a phone call to their home later in the day. Also, they noted that anyone who witnesses bullying should bring this to the teacher's attention.

Wilton High School student Jessica Morris and Olivia Schlater, a student at Brien McMahon High School, are members of their respective schools' Gay/Straight Alliance. Morris' school sponsors Ally Week to encourage intervention if anyone witnesses bullying and enforces teachers to pay attention to harassment. She encourages young people to become active because a bully "targets those who are insecure." Becoming active can build self-confidence and self-esteem.

Schlater, who attends the Center for Global Studies at Brien McMahon, is involved in SAGA, the Straight and Gay Alliance and the school's peer mediation program, which helps students solve their problems without involving adults. The program gives students a chance to get help if they are being bullied without necessarily having to involve a teacher or principal.

"Sometimes, bullying can be stopped if the bully realizes that he or she is going to be called on their behavior," she said.

The peer mediator sits down with the two people involved to try to resolve the situation. She said many times a students who is targeted is afraid to go to an authority figure for help.

"Students like me can step in and help them, making them feel safer about getting help and getting the bullying to stop."

Schlater cited the state's Teacher Code of Ethics requiring teachers to intervene or say something if they see harassment of any kind during school hours.

"This helps protect kids from feeling like they have no one there to stand up for them," she said.

Others are not so fortunate in working through the bullying, whether as the victim or the bully. Zimmerman pointed out that "statistically kids who bully and don't get help are seven times more likely to end up in jail."

The commissioner also addressed the problem of cyber-bullying, as did other panelists. She said that the state is working on a law to address cyber-bullying that should go into effect this year.

Schlater cited a study by the Cyber Bulling Research Center in which approximately 20 percent of young people reported experiencing cyber bullying in their lifetimes. Other studies show one in 10 teens are the target of cyber bullying.

"Bullying is real and it happens at every school you go to," she said.

Panelist Pownall-Gray emphasized the importance of parents, students and parents knowing what to do if bullying takes place.

"When you have mechanisms in place, you can reduce aggression by 50 percent in one year," he said.

"Addressing the problem of bullying starts with each individual," said Bria Karnedy, a senior at Notre Dame High School in Fairfield, who also has been a target of bullying.

"It only takes one person to stop bullying."

In response to a question of how a parent can determine if their child is the target of bullying, Schlater cited a number of signs: lack of motivation, feeling upset, sleeping a lot, and a decline in grades. In addition, Pownall-Gray told parents to notice if their child is getting up in the middle of the night, looking tired or complaining of a stomach ache just before going to school.

Schlater summed up the tenet of the panelists: "Everyone can make a difference by standing up against bullying and showing that they will not be a silent bystander." Quoting the message of her high school's Ally Week, she said: "Change attitudes; change behaviors; change directions; change lives. change policies; change voices. Be an ally, be the change."

The Youth Forums are sponsored by The YESS program at Stepping Stones Children's Museum. The YESS program offers training and mentorship, promotes opportunities for leadership and provides the tools for participants to work with children, as well as to gain skills needed in all stages of life. Youth volunteers provide an essential role at the museum .

For information about the YESS program, go to .