A Month to Confront ‘Tyrannical Cowards’

An 18-year-old in the Bronx was accused last week of stabbing one of his classmates to death and seriously injuring another. According to fellow students, the attacker snapped after being relentlessly bullied for his “flamboyant” personality.

The news resonated, especially as October is National Bullying Prevention and Awareness month. The nonprofit organization Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights instituted this monthlong awareness program in 2006 to help curb an insidious practice that can be traced back hundreds of years. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “bully” first appeared around 1530, as a term of endearment applied to either sex; later becoming a familiar form of male address, implying friendly admiration. By the 1700s, however, the meaning deteriorated; the O.E.D. now defines a bully as “a tyrannical coward who makes himself a terror to the weak.”

In the United States, efforts at the local, regional, and federal (stopbullying.gov) levels are aimed at stopping bullying and its impacts. East Hampton and neighboring schools have also recognized the need to heighten awareness, through classes and school-wide programs. Since 2009, East Hampton High School has had four suicides, three of them said to have been the result of bullying.

James Stewart is the high school’s health teacher; all grades eventually come through his class. Mr. Stewart has been at the school since 1978, when bullying was known, simplistically, as “teasing,” he said. Later, “hazing” was introduced, when upperclassmen would initiate freshmen into the mysteries of high school; it was largely dismissed as a rite of passage. Over the last decade, however, the district has taken strides to break the cycle and educate students about the risks in accepting such behavior as just part of life. Today, Mr. Stewart said, verbal and physical bullying has been greatly reduced at the school, although cyberbullying is on the rise — a type of bullying he considers more dangerous as it is often invisible to others.

Ultimately, he said, pinpointing a child’s need to harm another, whether through physical, verbal, or cyber abuse, is the focus of his work in the classroom, and mental health is therefore at the forefront of his teaching.

One program he uses is Sources of Strength, a 15-year-old project now in more than 250 schools and community centers in 20 states. Researchers and advocates laud it; it is one of the few prevention programs described by the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices as “a powerful program designed to harness the power of peer social networks to change unhealthy norms and culture, ultimately preventing suicide, bullying, and substance abuse.”

In addition, Mr. Stewart has implemented Compassion Without Borders into the health curriculum. That program, launched by the Suffolk County High School Principals Association, aims to galvanize the collective energies of high school students from 25 Long Island schools who have been identified as “natural leaders.” Each year, Mr. Stewart selects 10 high schoolers known to be empathetic or compassionate, as well as one or two who he feels could benefit from being around them. The Leadership Council, as the team is called, attends an annual conference each spring, to share ideas and learn about new ways to make a positive difference in their classmates’ lives. 

This year’s theme, Mr. Stewart said, is Pay It Forward, which translates to passing on an act of kindness to others.

At the middle school, Charles Soriano, the principal, believes that every month should be bullying awareness month. In fact, the overarching theme for the school is respect@ehms, which the principal defined as the foundation for “providing a caring environment where all students are valued and their academic, social, and emotional growth is nurtured.” Ultimately, however, Dr. Soriano stresses that it is important that teachers not just focus on bad behavior but teach children how to be positive and supportive.

Differences and arguments between children can often be a point of vulnerability. At the Ross School in East Hampton, a day school for East End families and a boarding school for students representing 17 nationalities, Hailey London, who teaches seventh-through-10th-grade health studies, works hard to ensure that bullying stays off the campus. Her focus is to instill Ross’s core values, particularly in the lower grades — tenets such as courage, compassion, respect, cooperation, integrity, and mindfulness, all integrated into the curriculum. Beyond tolerance, she said, she teaches students to celebrate diversity, expressing gratitude for all cultures, and a respect for world history.

“Ross has come to be equated with more of a ‘safe haven’ for students who might be on the fringes socially in a larger school‚“ said Ms. London. “Here, they are respected for traditional traits, such as their athleticism, but also for their talents, academics, and sometimes even quirkiness.” However, she added quickly, “We are not immune to [bullying] and work very hard to keep the school climate as one of safety and respect. We take a multifaceted approach to the prevention, and, if need be, identification, of bullying.”

At the end of the period in Mr. Stewart’s class at East Hampton High School, the bell sounds and students get ready to leave. Instead of rushing out of the door, they fall into single file and touch a piece of paper Mr. Stewart has taped to a file cabinet near the door. It says, “I am going to make you proud of me. Note to self.”