Have you ever played Bully Jeopardy?
It’s like regular Jeopardy, but instead of geography and history, the categories include “Bullying Facts” and “Bystanders.”
I learned quite a few things watching some Grade 10 students play it at Winston Churchill Collegiate in Scarborough this week.
Eighty-five per cent of bullying incidents are witnessed by bystanders.
Most bullies back off within 10 seconds when a bystander intervenes.
And this gem worth 400 points: bullies rarely grow out of it naturally. They morph into sexual harassers and date rapists and criminals.
That one jolted me in my seat at the back of the classroom. But the students weren’t fazed. They sat there like statues, which I remember perfecting back in high school. Even I, an unrepentant joiner, made a mean statue at 16.
That’s why I came to Churchill. This year, the school launched a bullying and sexual harassment prevention program led entirely by Churchill students.
It’s called RISE — Respect In Schools Everywhere — and it was developed by the Scarborough mental health agency East Metro Youth Services in 2004. I’d call it the mother of all bullying prevention programs. Scroll through the Ontario government’s “registry of resources for safe and inclusive schools” and you’ll find dozens of programs offering DVDs and one-time assemblies and 60-minute courses.
RISE, on the other hand, puts a youth worker inside a school for two whole years. That worker then puts a group of student volunteers — called “RISE Reps” —through an anti-bullying and anti-sexual harassment boot camp. It lasts three hours a week over 20 weeks. They also learn how to facilitate workshops in the school and at local middle schools.
Their theory: two years is long enough to change the culture of a school, 60 minutes is not.
Their second theory: teenagers don’t turn into statues when other teenagers talk to them. They may like they have, but they actually listen.
York University professors have tested these theories over the past six years, studying the RISE program. They’ve declared them sound. Two years of having anti-bullying cheerleaders in a high school makes students feel more comfortable and less anxious there.
“That we don’t always see with adult-led programs,” York University psychology professor Jennifer Connolly says. “It comes about because the kids see it’s their peers. It changes the climate of the school.”
Let me tell you: school climates need to change, particularly in high school. They are cesspools of sexual harassment and fighting. Connolly tells me 75 pert cent of teenagers report being sexually harassed recently, while 25 per cent report facing “physical aggression.” It goes back to that Bully Jeopardy answer: as they age, bullies usually morph into sexual harassers and date rapists and criminals
I had lunch in the RISE room with the RISE Reps after the workshop. They are all girls, all in Grade 11. I asked them what bullying looks like now.
Alisa Fageer, 16, confident, poised, a peacemaker, tells me girls never fight alone anymore. They always fight in groups. It’s always physical. And it’s always recorded to be uploaded to the Internet.
“Worldstarhiphop.com,” she informs me. I’d never heard of it.
Her friend Mariama Jallow, 17, pipes up: “The worst are sub-Tweets. They mess with your mind. You never know if someone is talking about you or not.” A sub-Tweet?
“It’s like, ‘This stupid girl, she’s always talking to my boyfriend,’ but since she doesn’t put down a name, everyone thinks she’s talking about them. It causes conflicts.”
My high school seemed small. That was before cellphones and the Internet. Now, however many students they have, they seem even tinier, more airless, inescapable.
Jallow transferred to Churchill this year. She was kicked out of an arts school for failing math. She arrived with a reputation for starting fights. Being a RISE Rep has saved her, she says.
“The friends I keep aren’t the best. They are smoking outside at lunch. Instead, I’m in here. And instead of getting into fights, now if somebody approaches me and is rude, instead of snapping, I come here.”
This is why Ontario’s Ministry of Children and Youth Services funds RISE. It’s considered crime prevention.
But RISE is very expensive. To staff a school with a youth worker for a year costs $80,000. I doubt even Upper Canada College would pay that much for a bullying-prevention program. Most schools that start the program can’t sustain it once the two years are over.
(RISE supervisor Michelle Moran says staff are working to adapt the program to the Grade 11 peer leadership course, as well as piloting a $1,500 program training school staff to do the work themselves.)
There are still lessons here: it’s wonderful the government has stopped seeing bullying as a rite of passage and labelled it a problem. But changing school culture will take a lot of time and money.