Nearly a fifth of Hawaii’s school-age children have been victims, bullies or both. And schools aren’t required to do anything about it.
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“So we did alternative things,” says Jerry’s mother, Bonnie, who serves as the president of the school’s parent-teacher organization. “My son stopped playing sports after school on Wednesdays because the high school boys get out early and wait for the younger boys outside the gate. He stopped going to movies because the high school boys go there and intimidate the younger boys.”
But the bullying did not end there. The following semester, Rick attacked Jerry off campus, beating him until he had lumps on his head. “Two of the high school boys took videos of the beating with their cell phones and showed them around the intermediate and high school campuses,” Bonnie says. “Then the boys erased the videos so they couldn’t be used as evidence.”
Worried about further repercussions, Jerry begged his mother not to pursue the incident. “So I talked to the police but didn’t press charges,” Bonnie says. “Jerry was terrified.” Rick’s parents refused to meet with Bonnie, who went into counseling with her son when he started having nightmares, walking in his sleep and exhibiting signs of becoming a bully himself.
Only a minority of public schools has implemented comprehensive anti-bullying programs. Many schools just don’t have time for new programs, especially with the pressure of meeting requirements set by No Child Left Behind and Act 51, says professor Beth Pateman, chairman of the elementary education program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “A lot of times, teachers don’t know how to respond if there’s a bullying incident, and kids say teachers don’t see it or don’t say anything.”
There are a handful of anti-bullying programs available to Hawaii’s 257 DOE schools. Two that focus on elementary schools are Quit It! and Bullyproof, created by bullying expert Dr. Nan Stein, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women. The DOE does not track which programs schools use and was unable to tell us how many schools have implemented Stein’s programs. The programs focus on prevention rather than intervention. Pateman describes them as “cornerstone curriculum” that show teachers how to develop caring classroom communities from the start and help children recognize and prevent bullying.
One of the most effective and widely used anti-bullying programs locally is Breaking Out of the World Game (BOWG), offered by the nonprofit World Youth Network. At least 33 schools use it, and seven more are slated for training this year, according to the Kaneohe-based organization. The program was co-created by educator Trinidad Hunt, who grew up in Hawaii.
“Most programs only address the symptoms,” says co-creator Lynne Truair. “Trinidad goes for the root issues. She puts everyone through a series of methodologies, exercises and practices so they can
farrington high school principal Catherine Payne adopted BOWG in 2001 after seeing it work for juvenile delinquents at Olomana School’s Youth Correctional Facility. Every freshman at Farrington must now attend BOWG training, which takes place over four days. “Her program is not just saying, 'Don’t bully,’—it’s comprehensive,” Payne says. “It’s enhanced our guidance and counseling efforts, and it’s helped students see the bigger picture. Our students discover that the things done to them result in how they are now and how they treat others.”
Hunt’s training also helps the teachers and staff. “It’s quite moving to see the staff become aware of how they were affected when they were young and how they engage in bullying behavior now, because adults do it, too,” Payne says.
At Kealakehe Intermediate School, principal Don Merwin reports a 40 percent decline in the number of disciplinary referrals since his school adopted BOWG in 2005. “It’s giving kids information but also working with them on emotional and social levels,” Merwin says. “We explore ways to deal with people differently in order to break the cycle of bullying.”
Hunt describes one particularly moving experience she had while finishing a training session at Wahiaw-a Middle School in February 2005. She sat with 27 of the school’s most difficult students in a U-shape on the library floor. “We’re going around the closing circle and they’re sharing how they’re going to put this into action in their lives,” Hunt says. “Kids are saying, I’m not going to tease my sister any more when I go home.
“Then a big kid, the worst bully in the school ... jumps up and says, ‘I just want you to know I need to apologize to my teacher.’ His teacher has just entered and he looks her in the eyes, ‘Because I have been terribly, terribly rude to you and I am so sorry.’ She breaks into tears. He turns to his girlfriend and says, ‘I need to apologize to you because you’re my best friend and I always put you down, I don’t mean to, I am so sorry.’ Then he runs to me and pulls me up and says, ‘Thank you, Aunty, for coming,’ and he hugs me, puts me back down and sits down.
“Nobody’s breathing because this is the worst of the worst, this kid. Everybody’s crying. Then I sat down with the teachers. His teacher is still crying, saying, ‘I don’t believe it.’”
But most students in Hawaii public schools won’t have the opportunity to benefit from anti-bullying programs like BOWG. On the Big Island, Bonnie worries about what will happen to her son this fall, when he enrolls at the same high school Rick currently attends—one of the many Hawaii schools that has no bullying program in place. “I’ve talked to the vice principal at the high school, who told me he can only take action if an incident happens on campus,” Bonnie says. “Otherwise it’s outside of his jurisdiction.”
Pamela Gibson is an Oahu-based freelancer and song lyricist. She often writes articles that advocate for children.