'Speak Your Mind' forum discusses bullying, bystander intervention

Thursday, March 20, 2014 | 4:16 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — For some, high school becomes the battleground for ridicule, insecurities and harassment. The students of Hickman High school hoped to address issues related to physical, emotional and psychological bullying at a "Speak Your Mind" forum Wednesday evening.

Panelists were Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Chris Belcher, psychologist Mike Mayer, MU Peer to Peer advocate Sheridan Brown, sociologist Wayne Brekhus and Carla London, supervisor for Student and Family Advocacy for Columbia Public Schools.

Hickman teacher George Frissell said the topic was chosen because of its presence in current media and its importance to students and the community.

"There have been major issues with cyberbullying, not just necessarily at this school, but throughout the country, and we feel it's important for students to be able to voice their opinions and concerns as well as ask questions about it," Hickman teacher Janna Fick said.

Panelists gave brief statements about why they were there and why bullying is important to them. The floor was then opened up for student questions. Here are highlights from several questions and answers:

What is bullying?

Brown, who said she has been bullied, described it as having a harmful intent behind it and as being intense and going on for a long time. Brown frequently talks to schools about bullying and emphasized that it is often repetitive.

Mayer said that with bullying, the intent is to dominant, to hurt, to threaten and abuse. If you intend to hurt someone, it is bullying and not joking around with your friends.

How do you approach self-bullying?

Brown said she tells students, "Don't let anyone else define your self-worth because you know you better than anyone else. Really search for positivity, and I promise that strength will come from it."

Belcher encouraged students to find someone in their lives who will listen, whether it be a teacher, parent or administrator.

Where is the line between bullying and joking around in sports?

Brekhus stressed the importance of intent regarding bullying and sports, saying if both parties agree that it is a joke, then it's not bullying. It is when name-calling and other abuse starts, that it crosses the line in sports.

He said trash-talking, when not taken too far, is "a part of the game;" trash-talking when understood in the context of a sport is not bullying if the intent is within a game setting.

You said we should focus on the bystander and not the bully. Do you think that in any way gives credence to excusing the bully's behavior? Is there a danger there?

Mayer said unlike the bullies, bystanders' behavior is easier to change because they prevent the bully from gaining social approval for their abuse. It is a good way to address bullying, but it is in no way excusing the bully for their behavior. 

London said nothing excuses the actions of a bully but that when bystanders do nothing, they become cohorts. Bystanders should be the voice that stands up for the victim.

You said previously that bullying is inevitable because it is a human behavior. What do you think the ideal future holds and how much of a change can there really be?

London said she doesn't believe bullying always has to be there or something that is always accepted. Everyone has a responsibility as a bystander. She said fixing bullying won't be quick, but people need to stand together to make a change.

"We have to say to bullies that you have a powerful impact, and we aren't going to accept that anymore — I think that message is just as powerful," London said. "We have the power to say that it's not OK and won't be tolerated."

Belcher said teachers have the power to influence children to stop bullying. Good people become models for good behavior, he said.

"I like to think about our staff members as heroes. They model behavior in such a way that it makes you want to me like them. I can think of coaches that have said things to kids in a direct and meaningful way that changed those kids' belief systems forever," Belcher said.

London said bullying is a current, powerful reality but that the community is more powerful.

"I think all of us can be a hero and all of us have the opportunity to stand up to bullying," she said. "There is someone out there who wants to be your hero."

The event was part of Hickman's "reality week," which was scheduled to include events about teen suicide and safe driving. The Speak Your Mind forum was part of a regularly held series at the school.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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