In a show of unity, determination and support, nearly 1,200 Iowans came together for the Governor’s Bullying Prevention Summit in Des Moines on Nov 27. The goal: Stand up to bullying.
The summit featured a number of speakers from Iowa communities, as well as state and national experts who presented strategies about how to combat bullying.
“Bullying is not exclusive to schools – it can be at malls, places of worship,” Sioux City Superintendent Paul Gausman (pictured here), a featured speaker, told the audience. “At some point in your life, you have been bullied. Other times perhaps a bystander. And if you’re totally honest, you may even admit that at one point in your life, you were a bully yourself.”
Gov. Terry Branstad announced a new statewide bullying and suicide prevention resource, Your Life Iowa. The hotline and website, yourlifeiowa.org, will provide help to Iowans 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Trained counselors will offer support and guidance to young people who feel they have run out options. The website also will serve as a go-to resource for Iowa adults who are confronted with issues of bullying and suicide. Your Life Iowa is funded by the Iowa Department of Public Health in partnership with Boys Town, the Iowa Youth Advisory Committee and the Iowa Department of Education.
Branstad told the crowd that the most recent Iowa Youth Survey of students in grades six, eight and 11 shows that half of those surveyed reported being bullied at school in some way.
“The culture around us too often fosters a disregard for others that is unhealthy and sometimes dangerous,” Branstad said. “Incivility has become all too common in the workplace, in politics and on the road, as well as in social media.
“Iowans enjoy a well-deserved reputation for being good neighbors – we call that Iowa nice,” Branstad said. “We are people who look out for each other. Treating each other with respect is a prized value. Yet it’s clear that it’s time to have this conversation” on bullying.
Some speakers agreed that bullying starts when adults model the behavior for children.
“It is our culture and our culture must change,” Gausman said.
Gausman’s district was the subject of a 2011 documentary “Bully,” which set out to portray what bullying truly looks like in schools.
“We knew it would be less than flattering,” he said. “We opened our doors to criticism and believe me, I know when the film is opening in a new country based on the influx of emails we receive.”
The upside of the film is that it launched a nationwide dialogue on bullying in the schools.
“Our participation in this video has opened the door to some of the richest conversation we have had in our community,” Gausman said.
In order to effectively work against bullying, it’s important to understand the components of bullying, he said.
“If you see a bully, you have got to recognize that power and control are at the root of their action,” Gausman said. “It isn’t necessarily about evil. Second, if you are a bystander, it’s a tacit permission for bullying. Third and not the least of importance, we have to look at the status of the bullied. Some are incredibly vulnerable.”
The Sioux City Community School District had bullying intervention programs in place long before the documentary was filmed. Of notable success are programs aimed at bystanders.
“More students are now intervening,” Gausman said. “More students are willing to be ‘upstanders’ themselves.”
Featured speaker Rosalind Wiseman, a parenting and bullying expert, urged teachers, parents and other adults to learn how to react skillfully, rather than superficially, to young bullying perpetrators and targets. For example, banners with anti-bullying messages in the school hallways mean very little to children, she said.
“What you are showing by being here is not that this is superficial to you, but that you are here and committed,” she said. Wiseman wrote “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World,” the best-selling book that was the basis of the movie “Mean Girls.”
Many adults who haven’t received adequate training to combat bullying make the problems worse when they intervene, Wiseman said. Adults amplify the problems when they single out the bullying targets for protection rather than confronting the perpetrators, or by reacting superficially when young people come to them for help.
“Instead of saying, ‘Ignore it, be the better friend, don’t let it bother you,’ this is the time to teach social competency and dignity together,” she said. “When a kid comes to you with a problem, you say, ‘I’m really sorry this happened to you. Thank you for telling me. Together we’re going to figure this out. I’m not going to solve this problem for you, but we’re going to work on it together.’”