Beating the Bully

Six years after the killings at Columbine, Colorado's become the center of an anti-bullying industry.

This luncheon is a celebration, a brief respite in the war against evil. The troops gathered around the white tablecloths are all here to pick up their share of more than $8 million being dished out to keep schools and playgrounds peaceful.

A 57-year-old former nun delivers the keynote speech at the Colorado Trust event. Barbara Coloroso tells her audience that it is taking on one of the biggest health issues in the country.

They're going to beat the bully.

Anti-bullying speaker Barbara Coloroso.
James Glader
Anti-bullying speaker Barbara Coloroso.

Some of the teachers and school administrators in this hotel ballroom were picked on as kids, Coloroso says. Others undoubtedly picked on weaker children, exploiting their differences for self-gratification. In their role as teachers, some may still do so.

Six years ago this month, when two Columbine High School students killed a dozen kids and a teacher, bullying in the schools suddenly became the focus of a national discussion. For Colorado experts like Coloroso and the creators of Bully-Proofing Your School, the hazards of bullying were nothing new -- but the international attention that propelled Colorado to the center of the anti-bullying industry certainly was.

People still debate, and may always debate, how much of a role bullying played in the tragedy at Columbine. The anti-bullying industry's explosion afterward is indisputable.

"Industry" is a term that makes many in the anti-bullying field cringe.

It's a term that smacks of profit, when those who work in the field say they want to focus on people. They want to do good -- and if they make a living in the process, so much the better.

Last fall, the Colorado Trust, a twenty-year-old grant-making foundation, sent a request for proposals for its Bullying Prevention Initiative to schools, districts and nonprofits around the state. By March 1, the foundation had received 92 proposals for anti-bullying programs. On April 14, it handed out 45 three-year grants totaling $8.6 million.

Although the Colorado Trust has funded violence-prevention programs for well over a decade, the Bullying Prevention Initiative is new. "The whole intent of the initiative is to build the skills of youth and adults to prevent, or actively intervene, in preventing bullying activities," says Ed Guajardo Lucero, a senior program officer. "After Columbine, we recognized that there was a lot more work to be done in the youth-development arena."

So did many other people.

Still others were already doing that work.

After leaving the church in the '70s, Barbara Coloroso went back to school and earned a master's degree in behavioral and learning disorders. For a while, she taught troubled ten- to fifteen-year-olds in a laboratory demonstration school in Greeley, where university students would observe her through one-way mirrors. The majority of the kids were in trouble because they'd struck back after being bullied. And all of the kids had tried to hurt themselves or others. Some had learning disabilities; others were mentally retarded. In the evenings, Coloroso taught university courses in special education for future teachers.

As she continued building her educational expertise, Coloroso married and raised three children of her own. Her son was small for his age, with his Italian father's black, curly hair. He was an artist and musician -- and a target of bullies. One day, when other kids were poking fun at him, calling him names and kicking him, his older sister ran to tell a teacher. The teacher advised the girl that kids in that school didn't tattle.

By the mid-'90s, Coloroso had moved to the Denver area and published a book, kids are worth it, which was designed to help children develop self-discipline. The book included a chapter on bullying, and groups began asking Coloroso to lecture specifically on that topic. She started delivering anti-bullying lectures in schools and juvenile-justice systems around the world, and kids are worth it became an international bestseller.

On April 20, 1999, Coloroso had just finished another book, Parenting Through Crisis. As a renowned bullying expert who lived in Littleton, no less, she was soon in even greater demand as a speaker and commentator who could put the situation at Columbine in perspective. A publisher approached her to write a book about bullying, and she quickly added an epilogue to Parenting Through Crisis, pointing out that Columbine-style tragedies were happening everywhere.

Then she wrote The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander, with a title she drew from her son's own experience of being bullied. The book became her second international bestseller.

Coloroso doesn't promise to have all the answers. Instead, she delivers passionate monologues like the one she gave at the April 14 Colorado Trust luncheon, which drew laughs as well as tears.

"I only say I'm here to bring awareness," she explains, "and then I leave them with a lot of work to do, because there is no bully program to drop in."

Most schools are still dealing with outdated concepts about bullying, including the false notion that it's all part of growing up. And schools punish bullies, she says, rarely realizing that after the bully has been disciplined, he's going to be twice as angry as he was before -- making it even worse for the kids he was picking on.

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