Colin Ryan had always felt awkward in elementary school, and when he started middle school, he figured if he couldn’t be cool, he could at least strive for invisibility. His plan worked, at least for the first two classes of the first day of school. Then disaster struck: his third-period teacher had her students read each other’s answers to a get-acquainted survey Ryan had assumed was confidential.
Even worse, it fell to one of the coolest—and meanest—kids to choose which of Ryan’s answers to read aloud. “What’s your favorite movie?” Beauty and the Beast.
“Where would you like to travel?” Wherever a book takes me.
“The laughter this time had an explosive quality to it,” Ryan said years later, as part of The Moth, a national program of true stories told before live audiences. “The kids were high-fiving. The final question was, ‘What do you like to do on the weekends?’ The other kids wrote, ‘Hang out with friends’ and ‘Go to the mall.’ I wrote, ‘Perform with Clowns for Christ.’”
Ryan’s cheeks burned, and his classmates’ guffaws made him want to disappear.
Just then, a voice from the back of the room said, “Guys, cut it out.” The words belonged to Michelle Siever, one of the popular girls. She held sway, and the room instantly hushed.
“But Michelle wasn’t done,” Ryan said. “She turned to the teacher and said, ‘Why are you letting this happen? What is the point if we’re just going to make fun of each other?’” Decades later, that moment remains etched in Ryan’s memory. He can’t recall the teacher’s name or the other students’ names, but he remembers Michelle Siever’s name, and how it felt when she rescued him.
For sociologist Anthony Peguero, such a story is more than a timeworn tale of school taunting. It also represents a promising strategy for changing the dynamics of bullying.
SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS
The World Health Organization has declared bullying a significant public health issue internationally. Bullying behaviors range from emotional aggression—such as humiliation, harassment, threats, social exclusion, and online attacks—to physical abuses, including hazing, sexual assaults, and deadly violence.
“Despite the seriousness of school bullying, many people dismiss its impact as exaggerated,” said Peguero, an associate professor of sociology at Virginia Tech. “The sentiment tends to be, I got through it, and I turned out just fine. Yet not everyone has the same level of sensitivity or response to injury.”
In fact, bullying can have lasting effects on victims and aggressors alike. One meta-analysis found that victims of school violence are up to 50 percent more likely to face depression, even decades later. A study from the United Kingdom found that victims face a 10 percent increased risk of inflicting brutality on others later in life; for bullies, the ultimate risk of perpetrating violence doubles.
The dynamics of school bullying tend to be more complex, Peguero said, than the interplay between aggressor and victim. Research suggests that as many as 85 percent of students have witnessed bullying, whether on the playground, on the bus, in the classroom, or online. These bystanders often unwittingly play a role—and their very presence may hold the key to altering bullying scenarios.
“The only way to stop a culture that accepts bullying as a natural rite of passage is to impress upon kids and teens that it’s unacceptable behavior and they have a social responsibility to intervene,” Peguero said. “There are proven tactics that bystanders can use to interrupt and even stop bullying situations.”
Peguero has helped articulate those tactics as a founding member of the Cartoon Network’s Bullying Prevention Advisory Board. Principally aimed at 7- to 15-year-olds, the Cartoon Network is home to such animated favorites as Teen Titans Go! and Adventure Time. With the help of the advisory board, the network has leveraged its influence among children and teenagers with a program aimed at educating and empowering bystanders to take action to mitigate bullying.
Launched in 2010, the “Stop Bullying: Speak Up” program is geared toward middle schools, where bullying tends to be most rampant. Anti-bullying messages are woven throughout Cartoon Network shows, popular actors do public service announcements, and discussions of bullying are offered on multiple platforms. The website features videos, downloadable posters, educator guides, and parental tip sheets. Kids are encouraged to take a pledge against bullying, and they can earn game badges.
Most important, Peguero said, “Stop Bullying: Speak Up” offers witnesses appropriate techniques to intervene: tell an adult, avoid the appearance of tacit approval, and be supportive of victims.
“First, get someone in authority—a school administrator, teacher, or parent—to intervene,” Peguero said. “Second, remove yourself as a passive participant. Say to your friends, ‘I’m not going to watch this,’ or, ‘This isn’t something we should be watching.’”
When a crowd forms, Peguero added, the bully and the victim suddenly become performers in a drama. The goal is to disrupt that dynamic. “We try to impress on kids that when they’re passive witnesses, their passivity implies acceptance,” Peguero said. “In fact, the very presence of witnesses can egg a bully on.”
The campaign also seeks to reframe the bystander’s role. Reporting bullying to an adult is not snitching; it’s speaking up for the victim. And friendliness to victims during and after bullying can both alleviate its harmful effects and signal to aggressors that such behavior will not be tolerated. Even a few kind words can make an enormous difference to victims, as can reassurances that the bullying is not their fault.
Peguero added the campaign does not advocate that witnesses intervene physically, as that may place them at risk. “We were very deliberate in our development of the slogan,” Peguero said. “We chose ‘speak up,’ not ‘stand up,’ because we didn’t want to imply that bystanders should respond physically. Instead, we advocate words that acknowledge that certain behaviors are unacceptable.”
As part of their work with the program, Peguero and his fellow board members consult on the scripts for public service announcements, commercials, and individual shows. For the entertainment programming, they try to inject nuanced messaging about bullying while respecting the network’s need to keep shows engaging.
His primary contributions to the scripts, Peguero said, are twofold. As an academic, he helps identify the most appropriate messages and places them in context: are they driven by scholarship or merely swayed by opinion? And, as a sociologist specializing in the risk factors of victimization, he raises critical issues at the core of bullying.
“Bullying isn’t equally distributed across school populations,” he said. “Bullies often choose their victims based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, ability, gender, or immigration status. Some groups—such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth; those with disabilities; and those who are socially isolated—tend to be at the highest risk of being bullied. I focus on those inequalities.”
Peguero also examines the implications of bullying that extend beyond the actual abuse. “Bullying can trigger more deep-seated and emotional issues for victims, causing school attendance and performance problems,” he said. “How can a child focus on history if she’s worried about her safety?”
As part of his research, Peguero consults with schools on ways to create healthy learning environments. “Having a school with great educational opportunities and kids with good relationships with their teachers and each other always reduces the level of bullying,” Peguero said. “Yet the pursuit of safety has changed the learning environment. The easiest thing for schools to do is hire a security guard, as it’s a highly visible action that appeases parents and reassures communities.”
In some cases, Peguero said, the emphasis on school security has led to the criminalization of students. Schools with zero-tolerance policies tend to expel students, even for minor offenses. Such harsh responses not only disrupt the students’ education, but they also populate what is widely decried as a school-to-prison pipeline.
“Should gum-chewing and the subjective act of ‘being disrespectful’ lead to the same harsh punishment as instigating a cafeteria brawl?” Peguero asked. “Punishing students instead of resolving issues skirts the real problems. Zero-tolerance policies remove administrative flexibility. Instead, administrators need to have multiple options for striking a balance between making kids feel safe and providing them with a good education.”
Peguero views the Cartoon Network’s anti-bullying program as an important complement to schools’ efforts to end a pernicious problem. “The network has made its program multiplatform, diverse, global, and—most critical of all—enduring,” he said. “Network leaders have recognized that bullying needs to be part of everyday programming, that the issue is too important and pervasive to be relegated to the occasional afterschool special.”
The benefits of advocacy for victims will likely have lasting impact, as Colin Ryan discovered when Michelle Siever spoke up for him so many years ago.
“You can be cool, and you might be remembered for a little while,” Ryan said. “You can be invisible, and you won’t be remembered at all. But if you stand up for somebody when they need you most, then you will be remembered as their hero for the rest of their life.”