Centennial High teen bystanders step in to stop high school bullying

/ 5 March 2013 / eunice

Shannon Prather, Star Tribune, March 5, 2013 – It seems as if adults can’t stop talking about the epidemic of bullying in schools. But for a group of Centennial High School freshmen, until they were recruited to be part of an anti-bullying movement, they said they didn’t quite understand all the hype.

“No one really got what it was about at first,” said freshman Karina Hovelsrud.

“Shoving people into lockers, that doesn’t happen,” said freshman Kenzie Anderson.

Six months later, they now see how bullying takes subtler forms at their high school, including sarcastic remarks in the hallway, a snowball to the back in the parking lot, or cruel tweets.

They’ve started to grasp the powerful role they play as bystanders.

The freshmen are part of a group of 50 Centennial High students who rallied against bullying on Feb. 25 at the school’s Obliviate the Hate summit. The students borrowed the word obliviate from the Harry Potter books — it means to forget.

The summit, a partnership between Centennial Schools and Anoka County, was an opportunity to show the group’s progress, but its anti-bullying efforts extend throughout the school year.

Helping out

Teens attended training in October, where they learned how to intervene as bystanders. They made videos to share their message with peers. Students and teachers wear orange T-shirts each Wednesday to promote their movement.

For many, the first step was to evaluate their own behavior. Realizing that some of their own comments could be taken the wrong way, students say they’ve adjusted their speech. They also muster the courage to speak up when they see an encounter turning ugly at school.

Bystanders are never neutral, according to their training. They can either speak up in defense of the victim or remain silent and be complicit in the bullying.

It isn’t easy, teens say.

“It’s nerve-racking if you have to confront someone older than you,” Anderson said.

And the summit isn’t a cure-all. Students say they still hear many of the tried-and-true put-downs — including “slut,” “fag” and “douchebag” — getting thrown out by their peers. Much of the most egregious bullying happens after school hours on the Internet, students say.

“Do I think bullying will ever go away? No,” said Centennial Principal Tom Breuning. But “people’s tolerance of it is getting lower.”

Educators and parents can no longer view bullying and taunts as an adolescent rite of passage, Breuning said.

“Every student deserves a safe, positive learning environment. In schools, we get so focused on academics; we can’t forget the social-emotional component,” Breuning said.

Seniors Dylan Hvambsal and Max Almich are student athletes. They’re not targeted by bullies, but taking part in the Obliviate the Hate group has made them more conscious of others in the bull’s-eye.

“Once you hear the stories from others, you realize the impact on other people,” Almich said. “Being mean — there’s really no good in it.”