A teen girl armed with a cellphone and a grudge can wreak havoc with devastating consequences. Many local families have the scars to prove it.
At the National Institute of Mental Health, studies of the adolescent and young adult brain have found that the impulse control center in the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully functional until the age of 25; yet even pre-teens often have free rein on the Internet. It seems wildly counterintuitive to put such a powerful tool in the hands of someone who lacks impulse control.
The need to be constantly plugged in (for fear of missing something) also tempts many girls to stay up late and sacrifice sleep, thus further inhibiting their judgment.
“Teens don’t realize the implications of what they’re saying and that it’s out there forever,” Kramer says. Kids often tell her naively, “But it’s my Facebook page,” not understanding how truly public every post becomes.
Responding to direct complaints from parents, as well as what many perceive as a growing national crisis, schools in Arlington, McLean and Falls Church have begun implementing formalized anti-bullying programs. Some offer “Stop Bullying Now” days with guest speakers and special training for guidance counselors. Others have set up “bully boxes” where kids can submit anonymous complaints, as well as online reporting forms and assemblies on aggression.
In November, Corporal Jim Tuomey, a school resource officer with the Arlington County Police Department, conducted a bullying seminar for teachers at Yorktown High School. The presentation is expected to expand to other Arlington County public schools.
But intervention on an individual, case-by-case basis remains tricky.
“If it’s not done during the school day, we can’t take [direct] action,” Kramer concedes, even though she often spends time counseling kids who are upset about something that has happened outside of school.
Even in cases of bullying on school property, victims must bear the burden of proof. This frustrates parents like Wendy, whose 15-year-old daughter, in addition to being “tripped up in gym class and knocked up against the lockers” was “routinely intimidated, followed and threatened.” Because her daughter refused to name names and the high school had nothing on camera, administrators could advise her only to avoid the bullies, find another route to classes and eat lunch in the school counseling office.
Wendy feels the school fell back on excuses and failed to provide a safe learning environment for her child. Later, she found out that because she had not specifically authorized the front office to inform her daughter’s teachers about the harassment, none of the teachers knew what was going on. Without knowledge of the problem, how were they supposed to intervene? Wendy finally pulled her daughter out of public school and is having her home-schooled.
“There’s a lot of denial at the high schools and concern about the schools’ reputation,” says Nora, a local mom and teen advocate. “Sometimes that gets in the way of putting the kids’ well-being first.”
Still, many area schools have become more proactive. Seidah Ashshaheed, the principal of Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School in Falls Church, recently sent several school counselors and her assistant principal to a “Mean Girl Seminar,” where they learned techniques for recognizing relational aggression and promoting positive interactions between girls. The school’s PTA also offered an evening program for parents on how to recognize and prevent cyber-bullying.
This year, Wakefield High School began piloting “Project Upstanders,” a program that strives to eliminate bystander indifference by engaging students who are known to be influential among their peers. The counseling department chose 70 such students—kids involved in activities ranging from football to drama—to train as “upstanders” who will intervene in harrassing, bullying or prejudicial situations. The first upstanders are also making presentations to freshmen, creating public service announcements and helping to orchestrate school-wide initiatives, such as polling students and then mapping out locations where students often feel uncomfortable or on edge. The school aims to monitor such areas more effectively.
“Sometimes we underestimate kids,” says Dr. Amy Shilo, the head of counseling at Wakefield. “I’m always in awe of what kids can do if you let them.”
Longfellow Middle School in McLean is one of several local schools to have implemented a Restorative Justice program. Built on a remediation model, the program gives victims an opportunity to confront their aggressors face-to-face in a safe setting.
“It definitely is a great experience with empathy,” Kramer says, “especially for an offender.” Longfellow’s interventions are held roughly four times a year, on an as-needed basis. Sometimes the bully has no idea how deeply she has traumatized the other student. Often it’s the victim’s family that ends up sharing that story.
“More often than not, the bully is going through something, too,” Kramer adds. These revelations tend to emerge in the same sessions, making it possible for the bully to get the counseling help she also needs.
This nuanced understanding is key, given that the divisions between aggressor and victim are not always clear-cut. A girl who is the bully of one may well be the victim of another, notes Robert Faris, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who recently co-wrote a report on bullying for CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360.
The report was based on a pilot study that surveyed more than 700 students (boys and girls) at a nationally ranked high school on Long Island. It found teens in a constant state of “social combat” to maintain position in the social pecking order. “When kids increase their status, on average, they tend to have a higher risk of victimization as well as a higher risk of being aggressive,” Faris told CNN.com.
The same holds true in affluent, educated Northern Virginia. Around here, “it’s a race on the treadmill for status,” says Elizabeth, an Arlington parent who worries for her teen girls.
At the countywide level, Arlington Public Schools (APS) recently approved a new strategic plan to combat bullying. Under the plan, every staff member receives a yearly reminder letter that it’s his or her responsibility to act in instances of harrassment. Elementary school counselors are also trained in “Steps to Respect,” a research-based program that, according to a pilot study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, reduced bullying and victimization by 31 percent in schools that participated in the program for two years.
Still, bullying is on the rise in APS schools, according to recent surveys.
“With more awareness of bullying in the community comes more reporting,” says Alvin Crawley, assistant superintendent for student services for APS. “Is the reporting going up because kids feel more empowered to report it?” The county is conducting a “root-cause analysis” to determine that answer.
One key strategy in the APS initiative is to teach bullying prevention in grades K through 5, before it blooms into an intractable issue in middle school. Such efforts are already under way in select elementary schools throughout the county.
“Raise your hand if you’ve ever been bullied,” counselor Janet Stockman says during one such session for third-graders at Abingdon Elementary School in Shirlington. Every student in the class raises a hand.
“Now,” she says, “this is harder. Raise your hand if you have ever been the bully.” Five kids, the majority of them girls, raise their hands. “That takes a lot of courage to say,” Stockman tells them.
The school’s anti-bullying curriculum includes a short story (a parable on respectful behavior); role-playing exercises on conflict resolution; and videos depicting the power dynamic between bullies, victims and bystanders. It also stresses the difference between “reporting” a bullying incident and “tattling” on another student.
“Prevention is the key,” Stockman says. “We’re able to help kids identify what bullying looks like and sounds like. And we give them the tools to handle it themselves. We tell kids they can be assertive. There’s a difference between being assertive and [being] aggressive.”
Sara, who is now 15 and enjoying high school in a new city, has developed some perspective on her own traumatic middle school experience.
“That part of life is really short and really meaningless,” she says in retrospect. Since then, she has taken her journey into her own hands by pursuing writing and photography outside of school. She has also joined her new school’s crew team.
Still, she feels for the girls in the trenches. “Find something that defines you other than the role of the student,” she advises. “If you find that passion, it gives you another role to play and hope for the future. Also, it distracts you.”
Spoken like the wise realist she has become.
Amy Brecount White is an Arlington parent who teaches writing and writes fiction for teens. In her novel, Forget-Her-Nots (HarperCollins, 2010) the language of flowers comes magically alive in the hands of a 14-year-old girl.