Beating the Bully
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.
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.
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.
So Coloroso has come up with a new definition of bullying. "It's a conscious, willful, deliberate, hostile activity intended to harm, where you get pleasure from someone else's pain," she says. An action doesn't have to be repetitive in order to count as bullying, she adds: Isn't just once more than enough times to be spit on or have your head shoved into a toilet full of urine?
She designs her speeches to enlighten audiences about the bullying phenomenon, give them a look at both the motivations and ramifications, and also provide tips on how to deal with it when they return to their schools. "They bring not only the resolution, but they have to bring the appropriate plan, they have to be able to identify it, get the procedures in place and develop programs," Coloroso says.
She often tries to steer schools away from buying packaged programs -- especially those that come complete with posters for the walls and reward kids for good behavior, quick fixes that don't address the cause or motivate serious change. "You've got to look at your situation," she explains, "and say, 'All I'm giving you is the backbone. You've got to flesh out the answers.'"
Coloroso usually ends speeches with a relevant quote from a man who was a U.N. envoy to Rwanda at the time when 800,000 people were massacred in a hundred days. "What does that have to do with bullying?" she asks. "One of the things he talks about is the powerful role of the bystander. The most powerful person in all of this is the bystander."
Coloroso didn't collect any of the Colorado Trust's $8.6 million in grants; she didn't apply for any. (Her husband, however, received a grant to develop an anti-bullying curriculum for children with disabilities.) After she wrapped up her speech, she headed off to New Zealand for another speaking engagement on bullying.
In the early '90s, word was spreading faster than rumors on the playground that teachers and administrators in the Cherry Creek School District had come up with a great way to beat back bullying.
Like all schools, Cherry Creek's had bullying problems. Unlike most districts, though, Cherry Creek recognized that something needed to be done. District officials tried individual and small-group interventions; when those proved ineffective, they read the work of Dan Olweus, an anti-bullying pioneer in Norway, and decided to take intervention to a school-wide level.
That was the start of Bully-Proofing Your School.
Initially, the Bully-Proofing program was run by volunteers. A coordinator took calls at home from schools interested in the program, and Bully-Proofing trainers met on their own time. By the late '90s, about a third of the public schools in Cherry Creek had implemented the program -- and the volunteer staff had started printing books and organizing training sessions to meet demand from outside the district. The program was even getting national attention.
Then came Columbine, and business suddenly boomed. Cherry Creek now mandated that the program be implemented across the district. In 2001, Bully-Proofing was transformed into a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Two years later, John Dandurand became the program's full-time executive director. Today a crew of about twenty trainers contract independently with the nonprofit to conduct Bully-Proofing sessions across the country.
The creators of Bully-Proofing continue to give props to Olweus. The academic was asked by the Norwegian government to study bullying two decades ago, when a few boys in that country committed suicide after they were bullied. The program inspired by Olweus's initial research -- the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program -- was ultimately credited with reducing bullying up to 70 percent in Norway and reducing reports of victimization as well. At the same time, it led to increased student satisfaction with school.
Word of the Olweus program's success spread around the globe. The first academic team to replicate Olweus's studies in the United States did so at South Carolina's Clemson University in 1996. In schools that implemented Olweus, the Clemson research showed, there were reductions in reported bullying, as well as reductions in reported delinquency, vandalism, misbehavior and punishments. Hearing results like that, a variety of schools in this country started trying out Olweus.
The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program teaches both kids and adults that bullying is bad and, contrary to popular belief, not a normal part of growing up. Under Olweus, everyone at a school is trained to watch for bullying -- an act usually beneath an adult's radar -- and kids and adults alike learn how to intervene rather than watching, egging on the situation or ignoring it altogether. Kids sit facing each other at weekly twenty-minute sessions, during which they discuss aspects of their class community, including bullying, and share personal stories.
Today the Olweus program is used in about 700 U.S. schools scattered across 37 states; school representatives go to Carolina for training, then return home to introduce the program to their schools and train their own colleagues. According to Marlene Snyder, Olweus's national training coordinator, the program is just getting started in this country. "We haven't even begun to make a dent yet," she says. "There's more people who have not even considered Olweus, or don't even know of Olweus, than those who have considered it or are using it."
Still, she receives sixty to seventy requests for information every day. "People weren't interested in bullying prevention until they saw kids dying as a result" of bullying, Snyder points out.
Olweus is the only anti-bullying program that's been deemed an official Blueprint for Violence Prevention by the University of Colorado's Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence. Since it was founded in 1992, the center has provided assistance to groups committed to understanding and preventing violence; after scientific study, it has given eleven programs Blueprint status, including Olweus.
The CSPV's seal of approval makes the Olweus anti-bullying program particularly attractive to school districts going after grants, especially because under No Child Left Behind, the feds often want proof of effectiveness before they dish out dollars. That's at least part of the reason that the people behind Bully-Proofing Your School wanted their program tested by the center, too. Conducting a scientific study isn't cheap, and when researchers at the CSPV suggested evaluating how the Cherry Creek program stacked up against Olweus, Bully-Proofing jumped at the chance.
The CSPV is now in its third year of testing Bully-Proofing, having implemented the program in five schools and designated five other schools as the control. (Olweus was evaluated in eleven intervention schools and 28 control schools.) It will take at least another year before CU officially determines whether Bully-Proofing is effective.
Although Bully-Proofing derives a lot of its theory from Olweus, unlike that program, it comes with a concrete curriculum. The curriculum includes a set of lessons for teachers on what constitutes bullying, why kids do it and how bullying is different from other conflicts. Teachers receive a Bully-Proofing manual and lesson plans; students get a workbook and suggestions on how to deal with bullies. For example, in difficult situations, kids are supposed to remember the HA-HA SO acronym, which reminds them to Help, Assert yourself, Humor, Avoid, Self-talk and Own it.
The curriculum is what makes Bully-Proofing particularly attractive to school districts, because it makes the program easier to implement. "I think of Olweus as more like the foundation where the principles come from, but not some kind of overarching program that has all the answers," says Dandurand. "Their implementation, in our assessment, isn't as strong as ours. They have the same principles, though, and we use those principles."
Bully-Proofing trainers have visited schools in states like Pennsylvania, where Olweus has the anti-bullying market cornered. The lack of an Olweus curriculum leaves teachers and administrators without a clear message to facilitate learning, they say, and teachers sometimes feel empty-handed. Often schools will contact Bully-Proofing after they see that its lesson plans are more concrete than Olweus's training, Dandurand says.
"I'm a professional," responds Snyder. "I'm just going to talk to you about the programs I know best. I don't have to rain on someone else's parade to make ours look better."
Although Olweus is the undisputed grandfather of the anti-bullying movement, Bully-Proofing is coming on strong. It's already in 35,000 classrooms (if it's been unsuccessful anywhere, Dandurand isn't saying), and if it gets CU's seal of approval, it will soon be in many more. Still, as demand for anti-bullying programs grows, so does the competition.
Coloroso's books continue to move, and after the recent "bullycide" -- as incidents involving bullying and suicide have come to be known -- on the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota, she was the talking head NBC called for expert commentary. "She comes off very well in front of an audience, and that makes her great for somebody who's running a news show that wants a thoughtful, credible, engaging presenter to speak to an issue, someone they can point to as an authority," says Dandurand. "We're not as visible as we'd like to bewe continue to work on that."
Larry Epstein was the last person to take the stage after two days of anti-bullying workshops and school-safety speeches at the fourth annual CU-sponsored "Safe Communities -- Safe Schools Conference" earlier this month. Epstein busted out power points for Bully-Proofing Your Schools; he's the president of the nonprofit's board of directors and a school psychologist in the Cherry Creek district where Bully-Proofing was born.
The kids there call him Dr. Larry.
Epstein sports a tie, khakis and a pierced ear and uses jokes to punctuate his talks. At this conference, he offered one that Coloroso would repeat a few days later at the Colorado Trust luncheon -- the old chestnut about how if bullies don't grow up to be criminals, they grow up to be politicians.
When Coloroso delivered the politics punchline, her audience went wild. But those people were relatively fresh.
By the time Epstein got to tell his jokes, his audience seemed bullied out by two days of workshops. "Congress," he said, embellishing the joke and getting few laughs.
"Politics," he threw out. At least one woman still didn't get it.
"Congress?" she asked.
No, no, Epstein explained. The politician line was a joke.
So far, Congress has stayed pretty far from an official stance on bullying. (Last year, a congressman from New York introduced a bill that would have set aside $75 million in anti-bullying grants every year from 2005 until 2008. Although the bill died in the House, the representative plans on reintroducing it this session.)
"Oh, I'm gullible," the woman said, providing a living example of Bully-Proofing's passive-victim model. According to Epstein, the passive victim is the typical victim, the one who's easy to identify. These victims are shy and cry a lot.
Others in the audience were the vicarious victims. They knew the gullible woman wasn't alone in not getting Epstein's joke, but they were afraid they'd get laughed at next if they admitted that they didn't get it, either.
Hands went up reluctantly, indicating questions for Epstein. One woman peppered him with a series of questions, like a spitball attack on an English teacher with her back turned on a class of delinquents. Epstein nodded his head up and down, over and over. At that point, he fit Bully-Proofing's definition of the third and final victim type: the provocative victim.
Provocative victims are annoying and escalate situations. Teachers often have difficulty concealing their joy when Epstein takes a provocative-victim-type kid out of class for a counseling session, he says. Provocative victims may have attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity -- or at least, they may have been diagnosed that way -- and they're a constant annoyance. Teachers may unconsciously show dislike for such students, and thus communicate to their other students that it's okay to dislike the provocative victim. "Even the teacher doesn't like Billy," Epstein told the audience, sneering like a child.
Bullying is everywhere. On the road it's between fast cars and slow cars, giant SUVs and tiny compacts. Salespeople bully naive customers into unnecessary purchases, warranties or repairs. Around the globe, other countries may see ours as a bully -- and they may regard Tony Blair as the bully's henchman, that annoying sidekick character that both Bully-Proofing and Coloroso warn against. And, yes, bosses bully employees.
"Bullying is not just a kid dynamic," Epstein told his audience. "Bullying is a human dynamic. This happens among staff; it can happen kid to kid; a teacher can bully a student; a student can bully a teacher; teachers can bully each other; parents can bully teachers."
If kids can learn to better a situation and live in peace on the playground, he added, then they will grow up to form a community that's more likely to act altruistically than it is to be scared into silence, unable to distinguish the difference between prying and intervening.
Bully-Proofing is going for world peace, one classroom at a time. "Parents want to send their kids to a safe school, bottom line," Epstein concluded, "and working in a school and having a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, I've got to say I'm kind of scared. I'm starting to think about home school, because it can be a scary place out there."
One recent day at Vivian Elementary in Lakewood, a sixth-grade boy was walking around claiming, "White power, Nazis rule." When he started throwing around the N-word, a black kid had had enough. But he didn't throw names back or retaliate in any way.
Instead, the black student called the white one out in front of everyone at the class's weekly community meeting. He didn't like how the white student's talk made him feel, he said; it offended him. The white kid knew he couldn't lie his way out of what he'd done -- his classmates wouldn't let him get away with it.
Welcome to a bully-proofed school.
"If it weren't for that format, I don't think we'd ever know it was happening," says Georgine Coleman, a social worker at Vivian who is in the process of implementing Bully-Proofing.
Although no school can ever truly be bully-free, Vivian is trying to get as close as possible. Coleman has led the staff in establishing the kind of caring community that the creators of Bully-Proofing envisioned. By now, the community has evolved to the point that new staffers can be trained to play their part in a bully-free culture in just a few hours, compared to the full day it took when the program kicked off three years ago.
They've got the culture down in the classroom, Coleman says. She has the teachers' backs, and if they're too busy to conduct the class meetings, she'll do it for them. The only place at Vivian where kids can still get away with bullying is during sports at recess, when supervisors may be watching from afar but can't get close enough to see who isn't getting the ball.
By implementing the Bully-Proofing curriculum, Vivian has given kids a greater sense of security at school, Coleman says. They're not scared, and there are fewer fights. They don't feel alone, and new kids notice that the school is different. All 240 students know that they can go to Coleman if they're picked on, and she'll greet them by name. They can ask Coleman to sit down with them at lunch, to come up with strategies to deal with bullying situations. Coleman eats with kids every day.
At Kunsmiller Middle School in Denver, Lisa Pisciotta is working with the Olweus program. Olweus has been fully implemented in just over twenty of the Denver Public School District's 125 elementary and middle schools.
Pisciotta came to Kunsmiller on a DPS grant. When she was searching for an anti- bullying program, Bully-Proofing didn't even appear on her radar, Pisciotta says, since it lacked the evidence of effectiveness that sold her on Olweus.
Just two years into the program at Kunsmiller, a caring climate has been fully implemented, and kids feel safer, Pisciotta says. She likes the fact that Olweus doesn't include a curriculum; that makes it less confining. Instead, she trains staffers and teachers on how to identify bullying and how to intervene. Kids learn their anti-bullying lessons during weekly sit-downs with their class.
Solid staff support is critical in implementing Olweus, as Denver's Sabin Elementary is learning the hard way. Sabin, a school with 700 students, started implementing Olweus in January 2004, but after a lot of turnover is basically starting over this year.
"It's in its infancy," Beulah Eldridge, the staff psychologist at Sabin who trained about thirty of the school's 85 staffers, reported at a recent meeting with school administrators and a DPS employee who trained at Olweus headquarters in South Carolina. "They're all different personalities, so some are really on board and going that extra mile, and others are like, 'I have too much to do.'"
"Having somebody in the building to support and walk them through the process is really important," Pisciotta says of Olweus. "It's essential. It doesn't have to be me; it could be anyone -- anyone with that leadership role is important."
Across Colorado, schools are adopting strategies to battle bullies, encouraged to do so by a law passed by the Colorado Legislature two years after Columbine.
At the "Safe Communities -- Safe Schools Conference," Attorney General John Suthers ran a self-audit with schools in attendance to see how many were following the recommendations of the state's Columbine Commission, which included implementing an anti-bully program.
"As for bullying-prevention programs, there is much work to be done," he concluded. "Colorado law directs schools to adopt a policy and a code of conduct concerning prevention of bullying. Thirty-four out of 178 school districts report implementing anti-bullying programs in at least one grade level. But the Columbine Commission recommended programs that are tested and proven effective, ones that truly have an impact on bullying. Frankly, a lot of the programs being used fall short. They have not been proven effective. Please talk with experts in the field, and make sure your program is designed in such a way that it can actually be effective in impacting bullying behavior at your school.... There will be more incidents of school violence in our country, and probably in our state. The necessity to plan for crisis while at the same time working to avoid crisis is as important as ever."
Several states passed anti-bullying measures similar to Colorado's, which helped spark the anti-bullying industry, according to Kay Hymowitz, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank focused on chronic urban problems, including education. "Once the courts define a problem -- let's say sexual harassment or some other thing that will cause schools to be liable -- you immediately get a whole group of experts who come forward and offer their services, and the schools are often terrified of lawsuits," she says. "And it becomes this industry on its own.
"It seems to me that bullying is something that you don't need a program for," she continues. "If a school is seeing a lot of bullying, there is something wrong with the culture of that school, and it is not something that any one program will solve. There's a tendency for administrators to take a legalistic and bureaucratic approach to many problems that are ethical and moral."
The Colorado Trust has plans for an independent evaluation to assess the effectiveness of the anti-bullying programs it just funded.
One Colorado school has intentionally kept itself very separate from the anti-bullying industry: Columbine High School.
It has no new anti-bullying programs. It's brought in no high-profile speakers.
After the shootings six years ago, offers of support from anti-bullying experts poured in, remembers principal Frank DeAngelis. Many had good intentions; a few were self-serving and wanted to make the Columbine connection.
But DeAngelis wouldn't be bullied. "Just having the name Columbine associated with it would've given a resounding endorsement," he says.
Instead of aligning his school with someone else's program, DeAngelis works on keeping Columbine's community safe every day.
As Coloroso says, "It's really something you have to do yourself."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.