Dharun Ravi was convicted of 15 charges, including bias intimidation — a hate crime — on March 16 for surreptitiously broadcasting video of his Rutgers University roommate, Tyler Clementi, making out with another man. Shortly after that incident, Clementi, a freshman and accomplished violinist, committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.
The story, which garnered heaps of national media attention, made an especially strong impression on Santa Barbara resident Suzanne Peck, whose son, Doug, is also gay, a musician, and looks strikingly similar to Clementi. Peck actually keeps a framed photo of Clementi from the cover of People magazine next to a photo of her son over her desk. She shares that story with readers in her soon-to-be released teaching manual, Stand Tall: Lessons That Teach Respect and Prevent Bullying.
For all of the media buzz surrounding bullying — including the debate over the film Bully, whose producers are upset that the MPAA won’t reduce its rating to PG-13 so teenagers can view it — it’s hard to find information that cuts through the noise and offers proactive solutions to a growing epidemic. Stand Tall does exactly that. When Peck started picking the brains of educational experts, she found that two great mythical strategies for dealing with bullying — turning the other cheek and punching the bully in the nose — create a false dichotomy and both miss the mark.
Preventing bullying requires active engagement and early intervention. Peck offers a model for building activities into the curriculum that both help students avoid bullying in the first place and confront their peers when they are made to feel uncomfortable. The book comes along with an accompanying DVD, which she screened last Thursday at La Colina Junior High School before participating in a panel discussion with DA Joyce Dudley and School District Superintendent David Cash.
The DVD models activities based on improv comedy techniques with students in grades 4-6 from Santa Barbara and Ventura. In fact, Jennifer Hoyt, director of operations for The Second City improv Training Center, leads the activities in the film. (Peck’s son-in-law acts in Second City, the famous Chicago-based comedy troupe that, for decades, has provided the major recruiting pool for Saturday Night Live.)
The Stand Tall method divides anti-bullying education into three core competencies: respect, discussion, and action. The videos illustrate lessons that build on these competencies while teaching children to accept difference in their peers.
In one activity, students are assigned a number between one and 10 that is affixed to their forehead; they cannot see it, but the rest of their classmates can. The number is meant to represent status, and the children are instructed to treat each other accordingly, afterward guessing their own ranking. They then repeat the activity, but all wearing the same number. Teachers at the screening took note of one boy in the film who acknowledged that he needs to learn to react with “words” instead of his “hands.”
Peck started out as a schoolteacher herself before moving to the boardroom where she spent most of her career as a corporate trainer, educating businesspeople on civil rights laws and respect in the workplace. In fact, Peck prefaces her discussion of instructional techniques by explaining the laws that touch on bullying; for instance, in harassment cases, impact is always given more weight than intent. The dean of the Gevirtz School of Education, Jane Conoley, who wrote a foreword to the book and moderated last week’s discussion, explained that workplace concerns such as “aggressive behavior,” “racial profiling,” and “sexual harassment” are merely adult terms for “bullying.”
Teachers in attendance asked how and when they should intervene when they spot bullying in the classroom or playground. Peck’s response: early and often. Teachers aren’t going to be around to catch every instance of bullying, however, Peck told The Santa Barbara Independent. It’s important that children have the skills to cope when they are made to feel uncomfortable. Perhaps if Brandon McInerney had such skills, surmised Peck — referring to an Oxnard teen who this past December pleaded guilty to second-degree murder after shooting a gay classmate almost four years ago who had allegedly made unwanted advances — he would not have resorted to violence.