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February 13, 2007 > A bully pulpit

A bully pulpit

Renowned author visits Fremont schools to combat bullying.

She is gorgeous, petite and personable. Jodee Blanco has excelled as a publicist extraordinaire, consulting with the elite of entertainment, politics and business. How could someone like this know anything about the despair and pathos of being an outcast? Striking at the heart of youth culture, Blanco revisits her own struggle through youth and adolescence; the insensitivity and cruelty that often accompany rites of passage to adulthood. Her references to "damaged goods" strike a resonant chord for most who listen to the emotional reconstruction of a childhood filled with the despicable practice of "joking around."

As a result of her experiences and the tragic 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, a determination formed in Blanco to do something about the root cause of such catastrophes. She noted that at one point in her life, she packed a butcher knife in her school backpack to cut the heart out of those who tormented her. Fortunately the weapon was discovered by her mother who initiated psychiatric intervention; the attack never happened...but it could have.

Invited to present a series of student, teacher and parent workshops over the past two weeks by the Fremont Unified School District, TCV talked with Ms. Blanco about her workshops and campaign to stop bullying behavior. As this powerful personality recounts the poignant experiences of her youth and imparts her resolve to change the antisocial behavior of bullying, the listener is filled with a sense of mighty purpose that will not be denied.

TCV: How will your seminars change bullying behavior?

Blanco: There are a tremendous number of adults who believe bullying behavior is just 'kids being kids.' They do not differentiate between kids being kids and kids being cruel. I will set those grownups straight!

Many kids genuinely do not believe they are hurting anyone. In their minds, they think their behavior is just 'joking around.' My primary message to them is that is not just 'joking around.' Bullying damages for life and I know because I am damaged goods.

It is important to understand that there are two types of bullies: The big schoolyard bully who steals lunch money and picks on everybody does not cause long-term psychological damage because he is, in effect, the outcast. Another group that I refer to as the 'elite tormentors' - well-liked and popular with teachers and the community -aggressively exclude others who are different for whatever reason. They let another eat alone at lunch, walk to class alone, always pick that kid last when dividing into teams and never invite that kid to go to the mall or parties. That is the kind of bullying that damages people forever. Physical bullying can be rationalized by thinking there is something wrong with the bully but if others ignore you and roll their eyes when you pass them in the hall, the thought is that there is something wrong with me.

A primary message I leave with kids is that bullying is not just the mean things you do, but all the nice things you never do! This is the type of bullying that makes kids loathe themselves and triggers the Columbines of this world, not the hatred of others.

TCV: Do you focus on a particular age group?

Blanco: My message is relevant from womb to coffin. Bullying from kindergarten to fourth grade is typically not the most psychologically damaging kind. Kids have not yet formed clicks. Ostracism, aggressive exclusion and purposefully isolating someone because they are different doesn't usually articulate itself in profoundly damaging ways during those years. Where bullying becomes psychologically mangling is from fifth grade up. This is when the clicks form and kids are defined by the click they are accepted by. Others that are not accepted for whatever reason begin to question and ask, "What is wrong with me?" Their lives become a subtle living hell.

I focus on students in fifth grade through twelfth and I also do a lot with universities and anti-hazing. It is all about the same thing. Whether a fifth grader or a sophomore in college, bullying is not about hate or aggression. It is about the desperate need to fit in. The bully and the victim are the flip sides of the same coin; both are driven by the need to fit in.

The victim is typically the 'old soul' trapped in a young body; the kid that gets along better with adults than with those his own age; the kid who would rather put the grasshopper on a leaf taking it outside rather than step on it. This kid will try to blend in with the 'cool crowd' but, for instance, when the cool crowd makes fun of the chubby girl in school, even though he wants to remain true to the crowd, there is a fundamental moral maturity that doesn't let him do it. These kids are targeted because their sensitivity and compassion that will make them a superior adult can make them an outcast youth.

TCV: Are there bullies who are also victims?

Blanco: I go into this in depth in my teacher workshops. The common denominator is that traditional punishment doesn't work - it leads to school shootings. This is the case when you have a kid who is ostracized and becomes so frustrated, they become the bully. What causes this is the implementation of traditional punishment which makes an angry kid become angrier. If a kid is constantly bullied by the same instigator and that instigator is punished, the instigator retaliates against the victim. Anger will not be turned against the "cool crowd" because that is too much of a social risk. It is instead turned against the school outcast because that person is socially expendable. When the outcast finally flips and becomes a bully or worse, a Columbine, everybody is scratching their heads and wondering what happened. It is the system that is at fault.

I do not believe there is such a thing as an evil or bad child. However, a child with a desperate need to fit in and is ostracized every day, walks the halls while everybody looks at each other and rolls their eyes and snickers, who never gets invited to anything, who sits by the phone every night waiting for it to ring and it never does - that child can be driven to an evil act.

TCV: Are there differences between genders?

Blanco: The fundamental difference is the same as you see in most marriages. When an argument occurs, the female tends to become more silent and withdrawn. Men are typically overt; what you see is what you get. Bullying is the same way. Girls bully through passive/aggressive methods of cruelty. Instead of doing something overtly mean, they will gossip behind the victim's back or post something on myspace.com. They will make it a prank not to invite the victim to a sleepover and make sure she hears about it.

Boys, on the other hand, will just kick your butt. In my own youth, the bullying perpetrated by the girls was ultimately more damaging. Bullying by boys on boys is never as bad as girls on girls. Girls on boys or boys on girls can be vicious. The kid who is victimized and then becomes a bully is a mild version of a lot of these school shootings. These kids are not innately cruel, but they are desperate to fit in and it doesn't work. They become desperate fighting their true nature which only makes them more explosive. In my case, this led to sneaking a knife into my book bag.

TCV: Does your approach differ between age groups?

Blanco: No. although there are body and hormonal changes, these are peripheral. The fundamental reason for bullying is the desperate need to fit in. Hormonal, other internal or external factors may intensify this need but the primary focus remains the same.

TCV: How can you change behaviors when dealing with social interactions that may be very different at home, school and in other social settings?

Blanco: I am very good at what I do, not because I am talented, but because I survived. In order to make a difference, I am working to impact the primary influential individuals who affect the daily lives of the people I are trying to reach. My strategy is to do student seminars in the morning, a teacher workshop in the afternoon and a parent/family seminar at night. When I see the kids in the morning, I reenact what happened to me. At the end of the session, as would be expected, kids who are victims come up to me. Surprisingly, lead tormentors also come to me and say they never knew they were mean and want to know how to apologize and change their ways.

That is great, but if I don't enlighten the teachers, parents and community it will fall flat. Parents and the community at large must maintain what I taught the kids and what the teachers are doing. The other population that I address in the evening seminar is the adult survivor. There are millions of people that were bullied just like me when they were a kid and are having trouble coping with the aftermath. Those are the people who can be the beacon in the community to help others. They can be ambassadors of my message by helping kids and reaching out to the schools, turning their pain into purpose and facilitate their own healing.

TCV: After your visit, how does a community know it is successfully coping with this problem?

Blanco: There are several specific measurements of evolution. Typically I implement an award called It's NOT Just Joking Around! Hero of the Week(tm). Every week, three students are honored who stood up against the cool crowd in defense of an underdog. These students are honored by two of the most popular kids in the school in front of the entire student body. Not all popular kids are mean; some are loving, caring leaders. Using this technique can change the social dynamic of a school.

Another technique is the It's NOT Just Joking Around! Encouragement Club(tm) (The acronym is INJJA(tm)) which combines socially outcast students with socially popular students who work in a neutral environment to do all sorts of activities such as movie reviews, book reviews and community service. In this way, they can learn what they share in common. Also, there is way to report bullying through email and a drop box at the school to ask for help. I receive hundreds of letters from teachers who report positive changes. There is also a mathematical barometer system looking at the number of detentions, suspensions and disciplinary actions two semesters before I came and two semesters after my visit. In most cases, there is a discernable drop in bullying related disciplinary actions.

TCV: Is bullying more prevalent when different cultures meet at school?

Blanco: In a huge mega-cultural environment with hundreds of students of ethnic groups in one district, the most diabolical bullying is not cross cultural, but within a culture. After all, who understands your cultural vulnerabilities more than someone in your own culture? Where you see external influences being more profound is, for example, in an upwardly mobile school in a wealthy Caucasian suburb with five Hindu physicians who send their kids to that school. It is where there is a predominant group and just a few of another culture. There is power in numbers but those numbers can cause damage internally; the worst bullying is within an ethnic group. That is where the jealousies and competitiveness reside.

Kids all over the world, in any culture, have a desperate need to fit in. Why do you think Western culture is so popular? Everyone knows who Justin Timberlake is because it makes kids fit in with other kids around the world. There is nothing more powerful in a child than the need to fit in.

TCV: Can you eliminate bullying?

Blanco: You can't stop school bullying. It would be similar to defeating every virus. But my experience as a survivor, activist and expert on this subject indicates that 80 percent of the worst, most insidious forms of exclusion and other types of bullying are perpetrated by kids who genuinely don't know they are being mean; they genuinely believe it is just 'joking around.'

We are underestimating kids if we think that by showing them the damage being done, at least some of them won't be affected. The worst thing that can be said by an adult is to ignore the bullies and they will go away; don't give them the satisfaction of reacting. That is one of the biggest reasons we have this problem. We tell kids that they should not be a bystander if they see someone being picked on, but if you are the victim, to ignore it. That is a mixed message that imposes adult logic on a teen circumstance. That will not work.

Adults understand nuance but kids are literal. When a kid is told to ignore the bully, it is translated in the kid's head as an okay for someone to insult their dignity and self-esteem and diminish their self worth. Not only is this something for me to ignore, but the adult will ignore it too. Therefore, I must not be worth anything. Is it any wonder that 20 years later, that same kid will become an adult that will never vote, stay in a marriage where the spouse takes them for granted, rarely gets promoted in their job because their boss takes advantage of them and raises kids that will walk all over them?

If a child is being bullied, they are in pain and this calls for immediate action. Besides working with the school and psychological resources, a different social structure needs to be created through a group or activity in another town or location away from the school area. In this separate group, children can create bonds and friendships that will give them some relief from bullying behavior at school.

That message to ignore the bully has been taken to heart and he has been ignoring everything ever since. What needs to be done is for that child to look the bully in the eye and tell them to stop. Standing up for yourself is a human right; seeking vengeance later on is a mistake.

TCV: What would you like to add to this conversation?

Blanco: If you had to boil it all down to the fundamental stuff, I want kids to know that it is not just 'joking around.' You are not trying to be mean or evil, but bullying damages people for life. I know because I am damaged goods because of it. I want adults to know that this is not just kids being kids, this is kids being cruel and there is a difference.

Also, traditional punishment doesn't work; compassionate discipline driven by curiosity does. If your daughter gets in trouble for picking on the chubby girl in school, instead of grounding her as a consequence of being mean, why not make her volunteer for an afternoon at the pediatric eating disorders unit of a local hospital so she can develop compassion for those girls who are victims of being that chubby girl in society. Until we change the way we teach our kids kindness, we will not see a diminishment of cruelty.

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