In Bullying Programs, A Call For Bystanders To Act A growing number of anti-bullying programs have emerged in recent years, and the focus of many has shifted from stopping bullies to encouraging bystanders to act. But in an industry where anyone can peddle virtually any kind of program, initiatives vary in their quality and effectiveness.
NPR logo

In Bullying Programs, A Call For Bystanders To Act

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In Bullying Programs, A Call For Bystanders To Act

In Bullying Programs, A Call For Bystanders To Act

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Now, the whole ratings controversy over "Bully" has been frustrating for some schools. They were hoping to use the film as a teaching tool. NPR's Tovia Smith gives us a look at some of the latest efforts to curb bullying.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Anti-bully programs have grown a lot in recent years. Schools went from cracking down on bullies to propping up victims to make them bully-proof. And now…

LEE TU: Hi, my name is Lee. I used to be a bystander.

SMITH: At a Harvard-sponsored conference, Boston student Lee Tu is one of a panel of kids all focused on the role of those who witness bullying.

TU: She was called a whore and I didn't really do anything about that.

SMITH: To most kids, it's a big leap that they should shoulder any of the blame for doing nothing.

MARC SKVIRSKY: If they're not the person shoving someone in a locker or they're not online spreading rumors, they think they're not part of the problem.

SMITH: Marc Skvirsky with Facing History and Ourselves helped write a study guide to go with the film "Bully" that focuses on bystanders and what they call upstanders.

SKVIRSKY: We really want kids to reflect on their choices and the consequences of indifference.

TU: So we like to say that the bully, they're almost like a performer, right?

SMITH: Erica Newell of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, or MARC, teaches middle schoolers in Medway, Massachusetts about the power of bystanders.

ERICA NEWELL: They're just sitting there watching, right? So they're not saying fight, fight, fight, but they're also not doing anything, right? So who are they helping?


NEWELL: The bully, right?

SMITH: Newell tells kids she gets why they don't want to stand up to bullies and make themselves a target. But, she says, there are less risky options.

NEWELL: Don't join in. It's OK to turn around and walk away. So we don't have to be BFFs that(ph) sit together at lunch all the time. Something as simple as that is showing the victim support.

SMITH: After the assembly, seventh-grader Carly Hundertmark says her friend offered a small gesture like that to help her when she was bullied.

CARLY HUNDERTMARK: She would always like call me over like to a different table or whatever and just like find one way to get me out of the situation. So she said to me - she was actually the one who told my mom, 'cause I didn't feel comfortable about it.

SMITH: Part of what made it hard to talk about was that the bully was one of her friends.

MIDDLE SCHOOLERS: It was the same for Shannon McHugh.

SHANNON MCHUGH: We would all joke around, but then she kind of took it to the next level and it started getting meaner, and she just turned and bullied all of us.

SMITH: That's often the case, says Westfield State University Professor Elizabeth Stassinos. And kids often play both roles of bully and victim. That's why peer intervention is key, she says - kids themselves need to create new social norms where bullying is not cool, and calling it out is.

ELIZABETH STASSINOS: The cool way of dealing with bullying now is for one kid to say to them, hey, why you hating on so and so all the time? Right? It's very much like drunk driving - it's more effective when a student takes the keys away from another student.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, Lady Gaga.


SMITH: It begins to seem a little less impossible when the likes of Lady Gaga get into the game.

LADY GAGA: I love you.


SMITH: At Harvard last month, she told kids it's on them to change their school culture.

GAGA: There is no law that can be passed. I wish there was, because you know I'd be chained naked to a fence somewhere trying to pass it.


SMITH: Indeed, to some passing laws can cause more harm than good. New Jersey recently passed the nation's strictest, leaving schools with an 18-page compliance checklist. One school made headlines for investigating a second-grader who said another kid had cooties.

Harvard education Professor Rick Weissbourd says it's easy to overreact.

RICK WEISSBOURD: You know, there's an allergy to kids experiencing any adversity. And, you know, we don't want adults intervening every time a kid teases another kid.

NEWELL: All right, so who can tell me, is this picture showing fighting or bullying? Yup...

SMITH: The MARC program spends nearly as much time defining what bullying isn't as they do what it is, but other programs, not so much. It's a bit of the Wild West in the fast-growing industry of bully-prevention programs. Anyone can peddle anything - and they do.


SMITH: Joe Wojick, all tough with muscles and motorcycles, travels to schools to tell his story.

: When I was your age, they called me Yubbie.

SMITH: They may be compelling tales told with the best intentions, but Elizabeth Stassinos says schools should not be investing in programs that are not research-based.

STASSINOS: It's often a feel-good experience, but it's a one-off event, and it doesn't change the climate.

SMITH: Stassinos says what works best is the slow and tedious task of trying to change kids' hearts and minds about what's cool and what's not.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.