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West Windsor Plainsboro Hall of Honor

Over the summer, I was informed that I was being inducted into the Hall of Honor at my former high school West Windsor Plainsboro South. There are no words to describe the tremendous honor this is to me. I was being inducted in the Alumni Achiever category with the likes of some outstanding former students in all areas. To be recognized by my former high school for the accomplishments of my bully prevention program is so gratifying. As I said at the induction ceremony this past weekend, this honor does exactly for me what I hope other schools do for students. One of the major messages of Bystander is to recognize the positive achievements of the bystanders and students in general. Go out of your way to celebrate those who are making a positive impact in the world around them. That type of positive encouragement and recognition immediately guarantees that the individual will continue to go on creating positivity around them. This award has done just that – encouraged me to continue working on creating positive school climates in the schools I visit while encouraging students to BE MORE POSITIVE to those around them.

Rewarding positive achievements is the best way to continue that momentum. I am so grateful to my alma mater and could not be more honored to have been recognized.

Highland Park Middle School

For years I had been hoping to return to the place where I feel “it all started.” As a graduate student at Rutgers, my student teaching assignment was at Highland Park Middle School. Placed in a social studies classroom, this theater major had some serious hurdles in store. Luckily, I had a great cooperating teacher and met some incredible friends during my time there. In addition to teaching, I got an after school job there doing the play. It was the first time my original writing was performed and it was a thrilling experience. Having the opportunity to go back to this school with my bully prevention program was AMAZING. My former cooperating teacher had become the principal and he was very familiar with the program as two of his daughters had performed in it at a different school. My experience in Highland Park did not disappoint! As the first group to ever perform in the newly renovated and restored theater, we had some pressure! This group of kids kept their audience of almost four hundred classmates, teachers and community members silenced as they delivered a really profound performance. Special kudos the a girl named Mackenzie who played Victim Five and really presented an outstanding performance. I was thoroughly impressed. Thank you for making my return to Highland Park so memorable!

Woodglen Middle School

What better way to open up the school year than at beautiful Woodglen Middle School in Lebanon Twp., NJ. From the moment I walked into that school there was such a kindness and cohesiveness that pervaded the hallways. Later, in speaking to the principal, I was informed that the school has a wonderful climate, so much so that they don’t even have locks on their lockers. In speaking with the cast on Monday, they had limited bullying examples to provide giving me the sense that although bullying does go on here, it is not an overwhelming problem. This group that I worked with was so kind and hard-working. They mastered their materials and put forth an outstanding effort on Friday. Silencing the audience, they moved many to tears. Coupled with their focused debriefing sessions, they really made a strong statement about bullying. So powerful was their performance that one teacher claimed my program was “the best assembly they have had about any topic ever.” What more can I say?

Excellent work Woodglen students!

Cyberbullying

There is so much being said about cyberbullying and its impact on the youth of today. Cyberbullying is one of the reasons why bullying is far worse today than it was twenty years ago. Kids being bullied when I went to school, in the eighties and nineties, were bullied at school and maybe on the bus or walking home from school. If a kid was being bullied in that time period, they would go home where one of their parents would, most likely, be there to greet them. They would have the afternoon and evening to be reminded by their parents just what it is that makes them so great. They could talk through their day over an after school snack  and be rejuvenated after getting the insults and disrespect they faced all day off of their chests. By the time morning came, they were ready to withstand another day.  For today’s kids, it is much worse.

For kids these days they endure the disrespect in school as best they can and often times come home to an empty house. Without someone there whom they trust to have an open conversation with or to provide a distraction from their terrible day, they are left to stew on the events of the school day. They log onto the computer to do homework or whatever and all of the kids who weren’t brave enough to say something negative to them during the school day have no problem saying over the computer. Kids who, in the eyes of teachers and other respected adults, may be well-liked in school say incredibly awful things from the cloak of invisibility they think exists when they sit in their computer chair. The bullied child is exposed to more pain and embarrassment then when they were in school. By the time someone gets home to talk with them, the nightly routine of dinner, sports, homework, showers, bedtime, etc has begun and the time to talk has passed. The bullied child is left thinking of these horrible thoughts as they lie in bed dreading sleep and the oncoming morning.

Often adults don’t understand how things said on the computer can translate into the school setting if the person being disrespected never saw what was being said on the computer. Imagine this, someone says something online that is damaging, disrespectful and embarrassing. Dozens of kids from the school come across this post and read it. By the time school starts the next morning, this damaging, disrespectful and embarrassing post has become a truth to those that read it. If not a truth, then at least a laughable and cruel joke. When the intended target walks into school the next morning, everyone is already in the loop; everyone already knows this horrible thing. The deck is already stacked against the target. Cyberbullying is so powerfully negative because what could have taken a day/week/month to travel throughout the student body in school takes moments to become “fact” accepted by everyone on social media sites. No matter how untruthful the post is, written on social media and seen by dozens of students makes it an instant group mentality. I cannot imagine having to face that every morning when I walk into a school – knowing that all of these kids were reading falsehoods and developing skewed versions of who I am before even giving me a chance to rebuff them.

So what can we do? A working mother once told me that they would have rather worked when their child was in elementary school and stayed home with them during middle school. So many bullied kids don’t talk about what is plaguing them because there isn’t enough time with their parents for them to get it out. Obviously people have to work but making the time to really connect and communicate with your child is so valuable. It can’t just be all functional – is your homework done? Did you eat? What papers do I have to sign? Noticing changes in your child’s behavior is crucial as bullying information is something you may have to draw out of them. Another helpful thing too is to always model the right behavior. If your child hears you belittling someone else or insulting someone else without cause, they are going to learn that terrible habit and repeat it. Every behavior you model is picked up on by your child.  Another tip is to not only monitor what your child is doing on the Internet, but to take seriously any complaints they have regarding what is being said about them. It may seem frivolous to you at the time – “someone posted something horrible about me on Facebook!” – and you may want to say, “well just don’t read it – just ignore them – it’s not true so it doesn’t matter.” Try putting yourself in your child’s shoes knowing that no matter if it’s true or not, they are going into school tomorrow with everyone else thinking it’s true. Instead of brushing if off, listen to what your child is saying – why this particular post is so painful for him or her. Teach your child to be assertive and stand up for themselves by addressing what was said to those that say it. If your child is not the target of the meanness, teach him or her to stand up for someone else. Instruct your child to post something positive about the online target therefore helping negate the negative comment. Always try to teach your child to empathize with those that are targeted.

Cyberbullying is something that is not going to go away until we help to create a more kind and empathetic user population. Kids who aren’t worried about how others feel and who feel invincible on the Internet are going to continue to cause huge problems for their school climate and the self esteem of those students within the school. The job is not the teachers and/or the lawmakers job. It is the job of the parents. We all have to be more involved in how our kids relate to one another online. Our children need our guidance.

A Fresh Start

As school starts this year, it is time to make a decision about who you are going to be. Maybe last year you were a bully – you made some comments about people to their faces or behind their backs. You said things on social media that you would never say in person. You consistently insulted and disrespected someone because of how they look, act, talk, choose to live. If that was you last year, it doesn’t have to be you this year. THIS YEAR you can be someone changed. You don’t have to be someone who is feared; someone who will be remembered in a negative light by so many. You don’t have to be someone who gets attention in all the wrong ways. You don’t have to be the continuous cause of the negativity that surrounds you. THIS YEAR you can be someone who radiates positivity. Someone who doesn’t speak meanly about others because you realize that there are things about yourself you don’t like either. You can be someone who defends those who are continually beaten down and disrespected. You can be someone who has decided they would like to be remembered in a positive way, for doing positive things. Decide for yourself that now, THIS YEAR, you will not hurt others for no reason. You will not be a source of pain to someone else. Maybe THIS YEAR, you can apologize for who you were last year.

Every year is a fresh start.

Matawan-Aberdeen Regional High School

Rounding out the year, I visited Matawan-Aberdeen High School. High school is always a little different in that the participants have so much  going on it is generally hard to get everyone to commit to the rehearsal time. After a quiet initial meeting, this group really rose to the occasion and made the commitment to rehearse and prepare their lines.  This was a extremely gratifying week for me as I received some great feedback from cast members and audience members. One cast member thanked me for bringing the program to the school. She mentioned a history of bullying at a former school and how, if this program had been brought to the school, her life in that building may have been easier. She confirmed my belief that getting the bystanders involved would make huge impact on the life of the victim when she said, “If one bystander had said something positive to me, it would have made all the difference.” How gratifying.

Following the amazing performances during which high school students sat silently as their classmates performed, the conversations in the debriefing sessions were just as powerful. I heard from one counselor who was in a debriefing room that a student who had been and was currently being bullied shared his story with the class. After the session he said to the counselor that he felt like a “weight had been lifted off his shoulder” in having the opportunity and the courage to open up about his experiences. That is the ultimate goal – to give bullied students the opportunity to find and USE their voices. By showing the rest of the debriefing group how much the bullying does bother them, the bullies and bystanders can’t possibly feign ignorance about the negative results their words and actions have. For me, that is the number one motivator.

What a beautiful way to finish an exceptional year doing what matter most – helping bystanders realize how much of an impact positivity can make on the world around them and helping victims find and use their voices.

Pennridge North Middle School

It was such an honor to return to one of my first schools – Pennridge North Middle School! Not only is the school and its community a great place to be, but the drive to the school is breathtaking. Upon meeting this talented group, I knew I was in for a fun time with outstanding performance possibilities. As always, this group did not disappoint! What surprised me in a good way was how strongly they reacted to the powerpoint when I first showed it to them. They each seemed to be able to closely relate to the emotions and experiences presented in the powerpoint and got very emotional watching it. It was a great talking point for us and a great jumping off point for our rehearsals.

By Friday they were ready. They put together a really moving performance with some stellar victim monologues. The audience was moved to tears and very responsive to their performance. The debriefing sessions, as always, were enlightening and provided a great opportunity for the audience members to find their voices. Overall, another outstanding week at one of mt favorite places! Well done everyone!

Community Middle School

Finally – I return to my own middle school! What an exciting opportunity to present the program in the very school I was a student in! I was thrilled to return to my old middle school in the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District. Upon entering the building, it was like being transported back to the old days. My years at Community were such a huge part in who I am today. The large group I met on the first day had a special spark. Perhaps being in the old performing arts room helped create that special feeling, but this group really jumped out at me as special. Our week of rehearsals was fun and rewarding as we had powerful conversations about the state of bullying in their building. I had some illuminating conversations with individuals about bullying and the effects it has had one their lives.

On Thursday night, we had a perfect parent performance after which the performers fielded questions from the audience members. Their responses were thoughtful, insightful and uplifting – the message really got through to them! Their Friday performances were outstanding as well leading the way for some eye opening debriefing sessions. I had the opportunity to speak with one boy who was dealing with bullying. Him and I had a chance to discuss what changes could be made to make the situation better while strengthening the dwindling confidence that he possessed. The overall experience was phenomenal and this group is one that will forever stick with me.

Carlstadt School

Back in snowy February, I had the pleasure of traveling to North Jersey to work with the wonderful students at Carlstadt School. I was reunited with a woman whom I had met while working in another school in North Jersey years ago. Esther Fletcher, the talented teacher who remembered my program from her old school, is extremely active in bully prevention throughout the state. It was outstanding to see her again! The students at Carlstadt were very excited about the program and worked hard to prepare their lines. Although a snow storm prevented us from having our regularly scheduled performance on a Friday, the students maintained their focus and delivered a powerful performance the following Monday.

I received a beautiful thank you card from one of the cast member where she thanked me for bringing this powerful message to her school. As always, it is my honor to work with a new group of talented kids each week and my pleasure to work hard educating the bystanders. Great work Carlstadt!

More Talented Kids!

Working with the author of the following piece was a huge honor. What a talented, kind, and endearing young man. I know he will continue to influence those around him in a positive way and use his talents to make the most of his life. Thank you Juan Flores for sharing your talents with me.

Bystanders by Juan Flores
Take action when you see bullying is on, instead of saying nothing, and doing nothing. I know it’s hard to do but dude c’mon stand up and say something…for someone. And stand up for the others, the ones who go through this struggle. They always seem to find that dark place, their laying in their bed, hiding under their covers. From the bullying in school and in the web, it’s a mess that these victims go through this everyday and they end up depressed. Its horrific, to read something in total plain description and having to hear something that they don’t want to listen. But we’re the witness, and we’re witnessing and we’re not doing anything because we’re scared of what other people would think. But just rethink. If you were in the victim’s shoes, wouldn’t you like a bystander stand up for what’s right the right thing to do. We all got to help, to those who go through hell. That are going through this, they can’t even pick up themselves.
How many suicides those it take for people to realize that the stuff the say hurts like crap. How many bullies and victims those it take for a bystander to realize that the victims are going through that. Maybe what the victims say won’t even take a minute of your day. You have the chance to change. You have a voice, use it the correct way. If you at least noticed the kid, his life might have been saved. We got to wake from this earthquake and stand up and use our voice, and notice these girls and boys. So us as humans of the world we got to make the right choice and save life to give these kids Joys.
-Inspired by Jillian Palmieri
- Written by Juan Flores