Tackling Bullying As A Health Issue
Tue, 02/08/2011
Staff Writer
Hewlett Girl Scout Troop members who took part in the anti-bullying program. Avigail Borah, right, intervened in a bullying situ
Hewlett Girl Scout Troop members who took part in the anti-bullying program. Avigail Borah, right, intervened in a bullying situ

I t happened two years ago, but it is still fresh in the mind of Avigail Borah, 11, of Hewlett, L.I. “A bunch of people — maybe four or five — were yelling at someone I knew during recess,” she recalled. “They were yelling things like, ‘You’re so stupid.’ I told them to stop yelling at her, and then some other people joined me in telling them to stop. They stopped.”

Asked if she had ever been bullied, Avigail said it had happened once when she was in the second or third grade.

“I stopped it myself by ignoring them,” she said. “It eventually stops being fun [for the one doing the bullying] after you ignore them for a little while.”

Avigail said she learned how to deal with bullies in the first grade from an eight-session course she took in her Girl Scout Troop 703 in Hewlett, an Orthodox Jewish troop.

“I think first grade was a good time for that course, but I also think we should be reminded of it with a refresher course every so often,” she added.

The course was developed for the Girl Scouts of Nassau County, L.I., by the Ophelia Project, a Pennsylvania nonprofit organization that helps young people and adults reduce aggression and promotes a positive, productive environment.

Two years ago, the Girl Scouts of Nassau County received a two-year $40,000 grant from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York to continue its anti-bullying programs.

“We’re dedicated to advancing the status and wellbeing of women and girls in the Jewish community in New York and Israel,” explained Joy Sisisky, the foundation’s executive director.

The foundation — which received an initial grant from UJA-Federation of New York when it was founded in 1995 and now receives in-kind services and office space — has given grants to projects dealing with different issues facing adolescent girls, but this was the first targeted on bullying.

Andrea Borah, Avigail’s mother and the leader of Troop 703, helped the Girl Scouts apply for the grant.

“My husband is a grant writer and we look for things all the time, and relational aggression is one of my pet topics,” she explained.

She noted that in September New York State enacted the Dignity for All Students Act, which specifically bans harassment and discrimination against students based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, race, color, weight, national origin, ethnicity, religion or disability, and requires New York State school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies. It also requires school districts to teach anti-bullying techniques, and mandates administrators to report incidents of bullying or bias-based harassment to the state Department of Education.

An Off-Broadway musical, “Freckleface Strawberry,” opened in October to present its own anti-bullying message. Several times each week, the show is followed by an interactive program with youngsters in the audience.

All of this follows a number of well-publicized suicides of young people, including some triggered by Internet bullying, a new wrinkle on an old phenomenon.

“Kids have been getting bullied for years and people would say that is just the way girls are when they reach middle school — that girls are just catty,” Borah said. “Now they call it the ‘mean girls,’ and there is even a movie about it.”

A social worker, Borah said she began speaking about bullying to her Girl Scout troop when the girls were still in kindergarten.

“It’s never too early,” she said. “Research has found that bystanders who see someone being bullied want to help but don’t know how. This program teaches how to respond. Once one person stands up to the bullies, others will join in.”

Carole Aksak, critical issues coordinator for the Girl Scouts of Nassau County, said the scouts try to promote healthy peer relationships and that bullying “changes who you are — the essence of you.”

“The drive to be protective and secure is a primordial reflex, and if you feel threatened or ridiculed, the blood flows away from your brain and into your extremities so you can take flight,” she said. “But adults don’t recognize the dramatic impact this has on kids and on every one of us. If you feel you are not safe, you can’t learn in school. If you own a company and an employee is getting a call from his child at school saying he hates school and is going to kill himself, that affects your employee and he can’t do his job.”

The anti-bullying course reframes the issue, Aksak said, “so that people truly understand that a lot of gateway behavior — rolling your eyes, making noises and excluding someone — is an early stage of bullying. It has to be addressed, otherwise it will continue to progress and it could end up as a school shooting. Ninety percent of school shooters were targets of taunting.”

She pointed out that the two boys at Columbine High School in Colorado who in 1999 killed 12 students and one teacher before committing suicide had been bullied for years.

“The Girl Scouts believe you can’t make transformational change in a 45-minute assembly,” Aksak said. “You have to have the administration, teachers, parents and support staff of the school and the community involved. So we have a program for kids that the foundation is supporting, and a separate awareness raising workshop for adults, and staff development for teachers; we encourage the principal to bring the message to the support staff. When supervision goes up, bullying goes down.”

In the first year of the grant, the Girl Scouts of Nassau County made 12 presentations to about 250 children, mostly girls, at Nassau County Jewish day schools, JCCs and the Community Synagogue in Port Washington. The programs proved so successful, that they are being repeated at many of those places this year.

“Girls and boys tend to bully differently, but the issues are the same,” according to Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz, spiritual leader of the Community Synagogue. “Last week I asked the kids to put their heads down, shut their eyes raise their hands if they had ever been bullied. Probably 90 percent did.”

The youngsters in the anti-bullying program are pre-bar and bat-mitzvah students in the sixth and seventh grades. Conducting this program in a synagogue rather than a public school allows the inclusion of “Jewish values and teaching that informs a sense of inner dignity and self worth,” the rabbi said.

“In the Midrash, the most important mitzvah [is from] Rabbi Akivah — ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ And his colleague, Ben Azzai, says the most important thing is to know you are descended from Adam. So what I teach is that you can’t love your neighbor if you don’t love yourself. You have to have a sense that you are connected to God, which gives you an inherent innate dignity. I try to teach the kids that they have to look in the mirror and say, ‘I love myself’ — no matter what anybody else says.”

Among the other things Rabbi Zeplowitz said he taught his students:

n Don’t feel bound by a code of secrecy or be afraid that you are going to “rat” on someone — whether you are a victim or a bystander. If you see something, say something to a responsible adult.

n Trust your feelings, and if you are being bullied don’t shrug it off and say you are being too sensitive.

n Don’t feel you have to do this alone — stand up in numbers.

n Say that you won’t allow words like slut or faggot to be used to denigrate someone else. They are filth and have no place in Jewish life.

n Find true and good friends. A real friend will tell you when you are wrong, but will tell you they love you because of who they are.

“We can say we behave this way not because it’s nice but because it’s our responsibility as Jews and it’s a transgression against God” not to behave this way, Rabbi Zeplowitz said. “As Jews we have a long history of being oppressed by bullies. Our holiday stories … like Purim are all things that happened on a grand scale when we let things go.

“The most important message is that God loves you and you are worthy,” he added.