Most anti-bullying programs address the bullies or the bullied. Debbie Kievits of Norwich is focusing on the most numerous and influential participants in this sad scene, played out daily in so many schools and homes — the bystanders.
Kievits is a volunteer coordinator and one of the founders of the Norwich-based group Bully Busters. Counting herself and her now-adult son as former victims of bullying, Kievits said several events prompted her to join forces with a group of concerned parents about 10 years ago. One was frustration caused by the lack of assistance she said she received from school administrators while her own son was being bullied in middle school. Another was an incident at Kelly Middle School that resulted in a young girl being severely injured.
"A group of us parents got together and said, 'We need to put something together and try to see what we can do.' It started around a kitchen table," she said.
The grassroots group assembled some local forums and activities, and applied for a mini-grant through Connecticut Assets in Wethersfield, which awarded them $800. "From that grant, the official Bully Busters campaign came about," Kievits explained. "A group of kids worked on a project to create a pledge to speak out against bullying, and handed out bracelets to recruit other participants."
To this day, Bully Busters is a free program, run by volunteers like Kievits (her co-coordinator is Lori Baptiste) who work with local children, school officials, agency staff and others. "I'm just one of many who do this," Kievits pointed out.
How it happens
Bullying is a complicated issue with powerful forces at work both fueling it and preventing its easy eradication. Kievits believes people bully others for a myriad of reasons that can be tough to draw out and address
"Usually the bully is looking for attention, or they've been bullied themselves either at home or by other kids," Kievits explained. "Sometimes it's sibling rivalry — his older brother picked on him so when he goes to school, it's his chance to pick on someone younger. A lot of it they get from the TV. They see shows like Judge Judy and say, 'She calls people a moron, so why can't I?' Sometimes, they just want to be mean. We need to teach kids to take the initiative, in school and at home, to invoke the Golden Rule — treat others how you want to be treated," she explained.
"Our focus over the years has been working on the bystanders, getting them to speak up — because we know if the bully has an audience giving them the attention they're seeking, they'll continue to bully."
And the psychological toll it takes on the victim and the victim's community is grave. High schoolers responding to a Connecticut Health School Survey in 2010 reported losing sleep and skipping school to avoid being tormented, or because they feared for their safety. Kids who are being bullied are also more likely to suffer depression, bring a weapon to school and enter abusive relationships.
Stand up, speak out
The Greater Norwich Anti-Bullying Coalition, from which Bully Busters originated, has three objectives: To provide educational programs that address the issues of bullying and violence, to promote awareness of school policies and the bullying prevention law (yes, there is one), and to train parents, children, youth, educators, and the community in mediation techniques to assist in resolving conflicts.
Kievits works with all groups — bullies, the bullied, and bystanders; and their parents, teachers, and peers.
"Number one [for anyone who witnesses or experiences bullying] is to speak up and tell someone," she explained. "Tell the parents, tell the schools, teachers, principal — tell somebody. Two, if you're the victim, learn some techniques to defuse the situation in the heat of the moment. It's not always easy, but walk away, smile, try to avoid reacting as best you can. Three, look for somebody else, an ally, in the classroom that will walk with you, speak up with you."
One of the hardest challenges, Kievits said, is getting kids to understand that they do not deserve to be bullied.
"No one has a right to treat them badly," she emphasized. "No one."
Another obstacle in the war against bullying, Kievits said, is when adults, perhaps feeling too overwhelmed or under-equipped to handle the situation, or believing "kids will be kids," turn a blind eye when a victim or bystander speaks up.
"We've been encouraging the kids to speak up, so when I get told by some of these kids that their teacher doesn't do anything, that really frustrates me," Kievits said. "The kids need to tell someone, and they can't be told, 'Go mind your own business,' 'Don't worry about it,' 'Ignore it.' No — they can't ignore it. Someone needs to respond to it."
Kievits acknowledges that packed classrooms mean most teachers are already stretched thin and can't mediate every student conflict. So she encourages them to watch out for the little incidents among their students — a passing comment here, a mean joke there — which often precede more severe outbursts of violence or bullying.
"We know that by the time bullying occurs, a lot of little things have happened prior to that," Kievits commented. "Whether you're teasing the kid, calling the kid a name, or shoving him, it's still wrong. If you give someone a dirty look for no reason, it's wrong."
Always a solution
Chronic rheumatoid arthritis keeps Kievits from a desk job. "I do a lot of volunteer work because it helps keep my mind off the pain and allows me to give back to the kids," she explained. "It's been rewarding seeing the kids come through the Bully Busters program and seeing their successes and then having them come back and want to give back to us. One former program participant, who is in college now, chose to perform his student work with Bully Busters as a thank you, because we helped him."
Angelo Callas is a family therapist with Norwich Youth and Family Services. He first met Kievits several years ago, he said, when Bishop Street School was on the edge of closing. He has witnessed how tenacious she can be toward a cause she believes in.
"When the school was in danger of closing, one mother started talking and talking to council members, BOE neighbors," he said, "and she talked so much, and so many people listened, and so many people followed her that she prevailed and not only stopped the school from closing, she helped get expansion funds for the school.
"We sought her out to take our 15-week parent leadership course. She was there with energy and vigor and ideas and one of the best can-do attitudes we had ever seen. At the time, she began having issues with her son being bullied in school. In true Debbie fashion, she could not sit back."
Callas continued, "The nature of Debbie is to always be doing something. If there's a problem, she believes there's a solution. She pulled together a coalition of people, she sat down with everybody who dealt with children in the community. She talked to anyone she thought could help her. She will listen to anybody if they have a dream. I can't say enough positive things about this woman."
Norwich resident Amanda Gregg, 19, participated in Bully Busters three years ago. "Debbie helped me find a job for the summer, and I've been helping her ever since," Gregg said. "I was involved in mostly Bully Busters, but did different things with her, like TVCCA [Thames Valley Council for Community Action]. She taught me how to work with others, make new friends and be outgoing. It's really fun working with her because I get to try different things. I plan to work with her for as long as I can. I have a job, so it's difficult to find time but I'm still trying. Miss Debbie is always there for me, and she helps everybody she can."
A place to belong
The after-school and evening Bully Busters programs allow kids to learn ways to prevent and avoid bullying, while simultaneously providing a safe place for them to have fun and let loose with their peers.
Kievits said, "A lot of our programs are driven by the youth. They come up with the ideas, and we host the programs. We're giving the kids a leadership role and they take ownership of it, and then they bring their friends down. That's one of our successes."
On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 3 to 5 p.m., Youth Against Bullying (YAB) meets at the Salvation Army's downtown Norwich location on Main Street. On Tuesdays, the Dance Express group meets from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the United Congregational Church of Norwich on Broadway. On Wednesdays, Rhythm Circle, a group with music, poetry and dance, meets from 6 to 7:30 at the church.
Kievits said, "The kids come in and work together on a variety of different projects. Some of it's team building, some of it's educational, sometimes the education is mixed in with some of the crafts or some of the games or different activities. Recently, we had a project where we made sleeping bags for the local hospitality center. We had 10 or 15 kids come in, and I said to the kids, 'Look, you've all been down here four or five hours and there's been no bullying, no one's teasing each other or calling each other names. You're working together on a project. If you can come together on something like this, you can do it during the school day.'"
Bully Busters also offers meetings for adults once a month. "Folks can come in and just vent," Kievits explained. "We listen to what's going on with their child that month. They can get some ideas, techniques and tips and understand that they're not alone in this. We all try to work together.
The group is committed to working closely with educators and parents. "Norwich Public Schools has been part of our coalition," Kievits said. "We understand it's not just a school issue. It happens at home, it happens on the playground, it happens on the computer. Cyber bullying — that's where we really try to educate the parents. Parents need to pay attention, because if they're the ones paying the bill on the computer, they can be held responsible for what their kids post online."
"Some folks tell me, 'You're wasting your time with these kids. They don't appreciate it; they don't understand it,'" Kievits reflected, "But that's not true. They do appreciate it and they do understand it. They want the bullying to stop. We can't have any more kids killing themselves over being bullied. We've had too much of that. As long as I've got a breath in my body, I will continue trying to make this end."
For more information about Bully Busters and its programs, visit www.thebullybusters.webs.com. Information on the state of Connecticut's Bullying Prevention Law and how it works in local schools can also be found there.