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Stand up for yourself and others

After hearing how bullying creates an array of social problems — depression, absenteeism, even suicide and gun violence — Hoover Elementary School students learned that as bystanders, they have the power to stop it.

Just holdup both hands and say, "No! Leave thatgirl (or boy) alone," local author Paul Coughlin told 500 children gathered at Hoover Thursday morning.

The most powerful party in an episode is not the bully or the target, but the bystanders, he said.

Coughlin, author of "No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps: Raising Secure, Assertive Kids in a Tough World," led the students in assertive hand exercises and words, called "positive behavior supports," and answered many questions that showed the kids were no strangers to bullying.

Coughlin said it's important to stand up tall, express confidence with smiles, verbally express your objection to the bullying, leave the scene if it gets physical, defend yourself physically if you have to, seek out supportive friends and report details to school authorities for an eventual conference of all parties, including witnesses.

Studies have shown that bullying is not about disagreements, anger or conflicts, but is a pattern of superiority, contempt and disdain by the bully, directed at those perceived as weak and unassertive, he said.

Bullying is 80 percent verbal, Coughlin said. Girls perpetrate most of it, he said, in the form of "relational aggression" — saying mean things and spreading lies — leaving the target feeling ashamed, isolated and powerless.

A former Hoover student, Britta Riley, 17, told the students about a long episode she experienced as a target of a girl bully who was her frequent friend but often slurred her and snickered at her, "turning my life into a river overflowing with pain."

Riley, in fifth grade at the time, questioned whether to risk losing a friend by standing up to her, she said. She eventually became assertive and told the girl to stop, to no avail, then had school authorities call a conference with all parties, including parents. Even after that, the bully retaliated with relational aggression, but with repeated assertiveness on Riley's part, the bully's behavior finally stopped.

Coughlin said some male athletes also bully, as they "control the social thermostat in high school."

Among bystanders, only 11 percent intervene against a bully, according to studies — unless the bystanders are trained and supported how to do it, he said.

The fallout from bullying can be extreme, Coughlin said. Some 160,000 students are absent every day nationwide because of bullying, and 85 percent of school shooters reported they had been bullied, he said. The lifetime effects can include depression, anxiety and inability to form close relationships, he said.

An increasing number of parents are suing schools for failing to stop bullying, Coughlin said, and schools are stepping up strategies to prevent it.

Hoover Principal Phil Meager said teacher lesson plans and positive behavior support teams have been set up to intervene in bullying and also to help students know when to walk away.

Coughlin is founder and president of The Protectors, a faith-based response to adolescent bullying. His school presentations do not bring in religion, he said, except to mention that the Golden Rule should be the foundation of behavior: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

For more information, contact Paul Coughlin at paul@theprotectors.org or 840-2816.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Paul Coughlin takes a question from Lindsey Pederson, 10, during an anti-bullying assembly led by Coughlin Thursday at Hoover Elementary School. Coughlin said peer pressure from bystanders is the most effective way to stop bullying. - Jim Craven