In a high school north of Montreal, a group of Secondary 1 students watch a video clip showing a group of boys circling another young man, calling him names and then pushing him into a locker. The clip ends and students are asked if they considered this bullying. All agree it was. But then the questions get harder. What about all the people in the hallway who turned away or pretended not to see? Is there a name for their behaviour? Why didn’t they intervene? What could they have done to help or protect the person being bullied?
At the front of the room, three young women listen carefully to the students as they try to come up with answers. The women are facilitators with the Tolerance Foundation, a Montreal-based, non-profit organization that has been working with young people for the past 15 years to combat bullying and intolerance.
Anne Lagacé Dowson, the foundation’s director, says one effective way to curb bullying is to involve the bystanders because aggressive behaviour is almost never a secret act that happens between a bully and the victim. “The kids know exactly who is being victimized and who is doing the victimization,” Dowson says. “They also feel uneasy about it. The solution is to get the kids to take steps, even small ones, to stop the cycle.”
So that has become the foundation’s mission: to empower the bystanders to become what Dowson has dubbed “upstanders” or people who are willing to intervene. Students learn to identify the different ways people can be excluded, for example, by calling someone names. “The key is to encourage witnesses to do something, and convince them that they are responsible for what goes on in their school,” Dowson says. We tell them that they have the power to help their fellow students.”
In fact, the three young facilitators are doing just that, asking students to imagine how they could help the boy in the video clip. “Tell a teacher,” someone suggests. “Talk to an adult.” Then the facilitators suggest role playing; they’ll re-enact the video clip, but this time a few students will be asked to intervene in some way. The re-enactment begins, and just as the victim is about to be pushed to the floor, two boys shout out, “hey, stop that.” Then they move close to the victimized boy, telling him to ignore the bully and to come hang out with them. At the end of this exercise, the audience looks visibly relieved.
Dowson says it is exactly these kinds of actions that are needed to combat bullying. “Sometimes just a small gesture can make all the difference, something like going to see the victim afterward so he doesn’t feel alone or going with him or her to talk to a teacher or staff member,” she says.
Eradicating bullying takes time and effort on the part of administrators, teachers, parents and students, she adds. “Perseverance is the key element to teaching and learning the skills to stop bullying. If the solutions don’t work the first time, try again and again. If the first adult you talk to doesn’t react, talk to another one until you find an ally. Do not give up on yourself or others. There are ways to reduce and neutralize bullying and the suffering it causes.”
As the students return to their seats after the role playing, one of the facilitators asks, “Who is against bullying?” All hands in the room go up. “Look around,” she says, “We’re all on the same page. You have the power to make bullying happen less often. You have the power to create a new environment.” It’s a first step in helping students see that they can help reduce harassment in our world.
The Tolerance Foundation offers workshops in both French and English at high schools across the province. The workshops also address prejudice, intolerance and stereotypes. The Foundation is also starting to work in elementary schools.
For more information, call (514) 842-4848 or go to www.fondationtolerance.com.