Wednesday, November 2, 2011

True Story: An End to Bullying


In 1985, an assault at Illinois Valley High School rocked the school.  A young man, one everyone liked and who caused no one any trouble, was viciously attacked in the hallway right outside the school office.   It was lunchtime and he provoked this attack through the simple act of walking toward the student store.  The attack landed him in the hospital with a brain injury and the threat of lost vision.

Sometimes you park your lesson plan and engage with students on their terms.  This was one of those times.  As I listened to their voices during classes that afternoon and the next day, I heard a lot of stories.  Students told me that the culprits -- a group of 4 male students larger and more muscular than most -- had been terrorizing the rest of the school all year long.  Their current tactic was to space themselves across the hallway just far enough apart so that anyone wanting to pass would have to bump into one of them.  When they did, the person would be accused of pushing and tossed back and forth between them, to their own amusement.  But I also heard stories of abuse on walks home, in
school restrooms, even under the watch of teachers and administrators.  The stories poured out that day.  Most of the boys had been victims.  Most of the girls had been witnesses and some too had been victims.

I was horrified.  I asked how four boys were able to terrorize 450?  Why didn't anyone report what they saw, what happened to them or their friends?  As an adult, I totally did not get it.  But then something remarkable happened.  A student in my AP History class challenged her classmates, "Why don't we do something?  We can stop this."  And to a person, they took up that challenge.

The response these teens designed was simple.  Every time they witnessed bullying or harassment, they would write down what happened and give the note to the vice principal.  Their slogan:  "Break the silence.  Stop violence."  Some were quite willing to give their names, others less comfortable doing so.  We called in the VP, Mr. Strode.  He said an anonymous note slipped under his door would be helpful, a signed one still better, but promised to address every report, signed or not.  He also requested that they add Vandalism to their core mission of preventing Violence.  They did and S.A.V.V.E. was born.  (Students Against Violence and Vandalism Everywhere)

A one page pledge to prevent violence and not to stand by and let it happen was drafted and signed...by three-quarters of the student body.  The halls were stalked by girls and boys, openly carrying their notepads and just looking for something to report.  In the first few days, Bob Strode was slammed with incidents to investigate.  Two weeks later, he reported to the club that there had been no incidents of violence, harassment or vandalism schoolwide for several days.  A month later, still none.  Over the next few years, IVHS students continued signing the pledge, learning about violence and speaking up to end it.

The students of IVHS kept their pledges.  They completely eliminated bullying in their school and turned to homes and community.  They learned about dating violence and sexual assault.  They brought lessons to elementary and middle school classrooms about child abuse and bullying.


The very simple truth that silence protects bullies and that 450 are more powerful than 4 changed the school culture.  For many years, bullying incidents at IVHS trailed other local high schools.  What they did was not data-driven.  It was not grant-funded.  It was not adult inspired.  It was adolescent courage, the likes of which any group of teens could muster.


I have included photos of some of them. There were so many more.  They have always been my heroes.  Today every one of them works to make a better community.  One works with AIDS patients in Washington.  One a published author, writing about characters redeeming their towns.  One is a mental health therapist at an adolescent treatment facility.   One a naval hero.  One is an actress in Hollywood.  Another is an accomplished composer and pianist.  Another is a chemical engineer and radio personality.  Still another has a successful online business.

I would love to credit some of their success to their early empowerment, taking on and succeeding as a group in turning their school around.  They would probably tell me "horse pucky".


Note for those of you unfamiliar with Illinois Valley High School:  IVHS is a small 9-12 rural school located in southern Oregon with a current free/reduced lunch rate in excess of 75%.  It is also part of a community proud of its independent spirit.