In October 2012, 50 students from Coon Rapids High School (CRHS) joined 50 students from Centennial High School for a bystander empowerment retreat to talk about bully prevention.
The project is led by the two schools and staff from Anoka County Human Services. It is paid for by a grant from the Anoka County Children and Family Council.
At the retreat, students mapped out strategies to enlist other students, faculty, parents and community members to eliminate bullying by empowering bystanders.
After learning some bullying prevention skills and putting them into action, the students brainstormed names for their bully prevention effort, learned ways to market their effort to their peers via social media and other means and came up with plans to implement the program at their individual schools.
The CRHS students kicked off their efforts with an all-school assembly Jan. 4.
The date was selected because one out of four students is bullied and the school is calling for “1 in 4 no more.” The students also unveiled the theme for their work, “Obliterate the Hate.”
Sophomore Cassie Brown said she and others thought the retreat would be just another day to talk about how bad bullying is, but they were surprised to find out that it was much different.
“We learned about the different types of bystanders,” she said.
“One type of bystander are those who stand and watch or even engage in the bullying. Another type is those who assist the victim and stop the bullying.
“Our group of CRHS students decided after the retreat that we wanted to bring this information back to every student and challenge them to ‘Obliterate the Hate;’ we want to get rid of it in our hallways, locker rooms and cafeteria.
“Our goal is to have all students feel safe when they walk the halls at CRHS.”
Brown introduced a video the group created about the experience at the retreat as well as brutally frank statements from students about what they have heard about themselves in the school’s hallways.
Students are bullied for a variety of reasons including the way they look, a disability, their race, their social economic status and perceived sexual orientation.
In addition to the fact that one out of four teens is bullied, Brown shared that as many as 160,000 students stay home on a given day because they are afraid of being bullied, one out of five students admits to being a bully and if someone steps into a bullying conflict, it will usually end within the first 10 seconds.
“Please remember that our goal here at CRHS it to make everyone feel safe at school,” Brown said. “We want to Obliterate the Hate; 1 in 4 No More!”
Sophomore Andrea Paygar-Flangaigh said while students see each other every day at school, many don’t know what their classmates face outside of the school day.
“The challenges that many of our students face create anxiety and stressors for them on a daily basis, which makes it difficult for them to come to school,” she said.
“Many of these students are bullied or harassed both in and outside of school.”
Paygar-Flangaigh said at the retreat, students did a “if you really knew me,” activity.
They were asked to share what others might not know about them just by looking at them. The students at the retreat brought the activity back to school and asked classmates to take part in it.
Paygar-Flangaigh read two statements where students talked about having poor self-images and difficult home lives.
Paygar-Flangaigh also spoke about cyber bullying, which includes mean text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites or fake profiles.
Almost 60 percent of students admit someone has said mean or hurtful things to them online; the same number never told their parents or an adult it happened.
After Paygar-Flangaigh spoke, Adam Thronson, a teacher who led the assembly, asked all students in the bleachers on one side of the gym to stand up.
He said this represented the number of students who are bullied online and never tell an adult.
“This is the amount of people who are hurting inside and are not say anything to anyone,” Thronson said.
“They have to deal with something that shouldn’t have been said; it’s too many students.”
Janet Irankunda, a sophomore, spoke to students about stepping in when they see bullying.
She asked every student willing to pledge to step in when they see bullying to stand up. Slow at first, as students saw others standing up, they joined in.
“There was hesitation at first, like they had to think about it,” Irankunda said after the assembly.
“It seemed like they were making a decision. But once one person stood up then people followed.
“That’s what this effort is going to be, it’s going to take a group of people to start it.”
Donna McDonald, violence prevention coordinator with Anoka County Community Health and Environmental Services, who took part in the bystander empowerment retreat and other Anoka County staff attended the assembly.
McDonald liked how the students emphasized the power of bystanders, she said.
“The fact that sometimes just a non-verbal gesture can make a difference to a target was powerful,” McDonald said.
“Emphasizing that just doing nothing when you see someone being hurt is harmful was another excellent learning point.
“Many people think ‘well, I won’t get involved’ or ‘I’ll stay neutral’ and think they are helping, but in fact they are encouraging it by just allowing it to happen.”
Through the students’ work, McDonald hopes they gain insight into the abilities and power they have to make their school and community the kind of environment in which they want to live.
She said Anoka County Community Health and Social Services/Children’s Mental health staff will continue to work with the schools during this school year.
A community summit is set for Feb. 11 to talk with adults about how bullying is not just a school issue.
Adults can never be bystanders and they need to talk with and model behavior for youth, McDonald said.
The students will also help plan the summit.
McDonald has high praise for CRHS and Anoka-Hennepin staff she has worked with as part of this grant, including Principal Dr. Annette Ziegler, Shannon Madison, a CRHS assistant principal, and Barry Scanlan, the district’s prevention coordinator.
“I’m constantly impressed by their commitment to go over and above for their students,” McDonald said.
Madison likes the bystander empowerment grant because the messaging is coming from the students.
“Kids tune out adults because they think all they hear from us is ‘don’t do this,’ ‘don’t do that,’” Madison said.
“It’s more impactful for the information to come from students, especially when they share their personal experiences.”
Madison said the freshmen and sophomores involved with the work are developing confidence to empower other students.
The students were selected for the project through recommendations from teachers and other staff.
Madison said a wide range of students were selected.
“The students walked away from the retreat saying they were glad that they went,” she said.
“I think this group of students has been enthusiastic about bringing change to CRHS.”
The students are planning a 1 in 4 No More week for the end of February.
The week will feature a variety of activities to raise the awareness of bullying and to empower bystanders.