Victims’ Rights Survivor Night focuses on bullying awarenessWritten by Caitlin McGlade | | email@example.com
She described it as a gray period of her life, a period when she scrutinized her friends, searching their eyes for contempt. A period when box cutters and hedge clippers and X-ACTO knives climbed from the drawers of the art room and crept into her nightmares.
She was in the sixth grade.
“A lot of light was sucked away” she said.
Now, Ruthanne Johnson is in the seventh grade. Her eyes, behind rounded glasses, drop to her lap as she reflects on the days following the heavy wrecking ball that nearly knocked her down. But the wrecking ball — which took the form of of a number of bullies at her her school — did not succeed.
Her sullen gaze lasts only a few seconds before her eyes shift upward and a broad grin spreads across her face. She drops her hands low to the ground and explains that back then, during that gray period, she was down there. Then she raised her arms high over her head and says, “Now, I’m up here.”
She and her parents have asked the media not to print the details of events that temporarily broke her apart. She had been bullied before, but the various name calling jabs she endured in years prior barely compared to what her friends and acquaintances did to her last year. She feared for her safety.
Ruthanne said she leaned on her family to gain her strength back. She stood on the shoulders of supporters at church. She took walks in her backyard. She even found comfort in an abandoned baby raccoon that she nursed back to health. Lady Gaga empowered her to use her voice.
She later met Lady Gaga through Oprah Winfrey at the kickoff of Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation at Harvard University.
Ruthanne’s mother Becky said Ruthanne’s school, Toledo School for the Arts, handled the case well and has become a strong support system for Ruthanne. But she added that she thinks some schools seem fearful to admit bullying happens.
“We’ve got to shift the paradigm and say it’s OK that it happens; what isn’t OK is that you don’t have a program in place to try to teach these kids tolerance and empathy and respect for one another,” Becky said. “That you don’t have a proactive plan in place to teach these kids what they’re obviously not learning, that you don’t have something in place that says ‘You have people to talk to and you have resources.’”
Not for schools in Wood County. Greg Bonnell leads the Safe School Healthy Initiative program for the nine school districts in the county. Both he and Ruthanne will talk about bullying at Victims’ Rights Survivor Night on April 25.
This is the first year that the event has included a program on bullying. Russ Simpson, of Parents of Murdered Children, said the decision followed a number of discussions about recent bully-prompted suicides that shook the national news last spring.
Bonnell will host a booth with information about the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, an initiative started in Norway that Bonnell now implements in 24 Wood County schools. The program operates on a five-year grant that funds other school safety programs as well.
Last spring, about 4,970 male and 4,860 female students in Wood County schools responded to a survey about the prevalence of bullying. Nearly 27 percent reported having been victimized at least once within the past 30 days. About 94 percent responded that they felt safe at school while about 13 percent stated that they had gotten into a physical fight within the past 12 months.
The initiative has since hosted workshops that train teachers and staff to identify the victims, bullies and bystanders. One of the components includes teachers and students having weekly discussions about how to create a safe environment by analyzing why fights break out or what leads to student altercations.
“We’ve finally turned the corner with people becoming more sensitive and more compassionate and it’s a civil rights, an individual rights kind of an issue,” Bonnell said. “I was a principal and a teacher for 40 years and I spoke out against it and I had staff members that would tell me the typical, ‘Oh, that’s part of growing up, boys will be boys and we can’t do anything about it.”’
He said school leaders might be reluctant to address bullying when the families of the bullies have been rooted in that particular school district or private school for years.
School of fish
After the onslaught of Ruthanne’s fame as a result of Oprah’s attention and Ruthanne’s organization BeYou YouthEmpowerment, she has fielded countless emails from bullying victims.
People write to Ruthanne to tell her that bullying had once pushed them to drug addiction, gave them suicidal thoughts or even triggered attempts.
Ruthanne said she is often asked about whether one should embrace his or her sexuality.
Becky said she feels blessed that her family is so close and that Ruthanne could turn to a support base for help. But then she wondered just how often even loving parents of preteen kids might become part of the problem.
She described a typical scene when the child comes home after a long day of school and the parents start haranguing him or her for leaving shoes in the middle of the hallway, leaving the bathroom a mess or for missing homework assignments.
“So they think, ‘My parents are always yelling at me, they’re always disappointed in me, ‘I’m always in trouble,’” Johnson said. “They feel that at this age, and so they can feel alone even if they’re not.”
Ruthanne admits to having assumed the bully role before. She has also been a bystander.
Now she wants to provoke bystanders to act. Bonnell said his goal, too, is to empower the bystanders.
The Olweus program has apparently influenced the bystanders before. About 3,400 students in Pennsylvania high schools who participated in the program between 2008 — 2010 were surveyed about its impact.
The results charted a 41 percent drop in the number of kids who reported being bullied.
There was a 33 percent decrease in the number of students who said they would watch their peers be bullied.
“It’s like fish swimming in the sea. You have your sharks, you have your school of fish and you have the pretty rainbow fish at the top and the sharks are going to try to get through to the school of fish and of course they will because they are going to scare them and get to the other fish,” Ruthanne said. “Being in the school of fish is a lot easier because you’re hiding in your little huddle and there’s power in numbers.”