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Program teaches anti-bullying techniques

The Internet has increased bullying and boosted demand for Mediation Works' anti-bullying workshops — and organizers are finding that the most effective skills to teach students are about being a pal and changing situations in simple ways, they say.

Students at St. Mary's School in Medford recently learned anti-bullying strategies such as taking the victim away from the confrontation, telling a teacher or adult and talking to the aggressor or victim, either during or after the bullying.

"Our goal is to empower young people with skills and choices for when they see aggression happening," said Angel Victoria Leonard, director of school programs for Mediation Works, a Medford conflict management organization. "It's a huge problem. With almost every school we visit, there's one story about a friend committing suicide because of bullying. It's shocking."

Presenters hand out cards showing various options kids have to change from bystander to "ally" and take action when they witness aggression, put-downs, gossip or cyberbullying. Studies show that 81 percent of it happens when adults aren't around, says Leonard.

Kids learn to confront the bully directly, which they do in role-playing with teachers and Mediation Works staff, using nonaggressive statements such as "That's not cool" and "How would you like it if someone said that to you?"

Surprisingly, such simple statements can get a positive response, especially if more than one student joins in. Kids can escort the target away or try talking to the aggressor, even if it's changing the subject to something else, the teachers explained as they ran role-playing groups in the St. Mary's courtyard.

Bullying can induce lifelong effects from traumatic stress, causes 160,000 student absences a day in the U.S. and results in 15 percent of middle school students feeling "scared much of the time" about being in school, says Leonard. She says "almost 100 percent" of kids who are different in religion, disability or sexual orientation are bullied.

In addition, she notes, victims of bullying are less healthy and are six times more likely than others to become offenders or land in jail for serious crimes.

As safety, liability and mental health issues from bullying mount — and with increased coverage of suicides in the media — demand for Mediation Works' classes is expanding in the region, even going into Northern California, says Executive Director Cameron McCandless.

"Statistics show that 50 percent of the population in any area of the country experiences bullying, and we're getting more calls than ever," says McCandless. "It's in the news, and schools don't have the money and resources for it. They're saying: Our resources couldn't be put to a better use than to have a safe climate here."

McCandless deftly illustrates bullying to a girl at one of the recent sessions, sneering, "I hate your hair! And that New York shirt! I hate New York! And why are you hanging around with HER? You know what I heard about her?"

Playing the role of budding allies, surrounding kids step between bully and target and retort, "Rumors aren't always true" and "How about if you apologize to her and try to be nice?"

A cowed McCandless then does just that — to the smiles and cheers of all around. Students, as Mediation Works program assistant Lydia Tollefson says, "don't understand on the first day the power they have, but by the third day, they get it."

Leonard explains that kids have the right to inform an adult, adding that "there's a difference between tattling and telling." Tattling is trying to get someone in trouble and telling is letting an adult know something is going on, she says.

Everyone is familiar with aggressive bullying, but Chris Johnson, head of middle school for St. Mary's, notes that social aggression — including put downs, name calling and excluding — are no less painful and so destructive to self-image that in extreme cases, victims will take their own lives.

St. Mary's, he says, has been successful in keeping bullying down because of the school's small size and creation of a community where each student feels tolerated for any differences and is known by all adults. In addition, he says, kids don't magically know how to stop bullying. They have to be taught.

Other locales can be much tougher, says McCandless, with rural schools "accepting more aggressive behavior patterns."

Johnson says sometimes the cause of bullying is that "some bullies like it. It's a power dynamic."

Becoming an ally and intervening in bullying episodes can be risky and cost you a friend or lead to being isolated, says St. Mary's eighth-grader Riley O'Sullivan, but "you feel stronger as a person, and it's worth it, and you may make a new friend."

Mediation Works offers its workshops for one period a day over three days, but will compress the program into one day for remote areas. Information is at www.mediation-works.org. The organization may be contacted at 541-770-2468 or schools@mediationworks.org.

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

Seventh-grader Caden Neidetcher, sitting, acts as the target, and volunteer Julia Craig, right, acts as the aggressor during a role-play Friday at St. Mary’s School in Medford. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore - Julia Moore