A road map for Catholic schools and bullying

The act of bullying can be overt or subtle, and ranges from public school to private, including many Catholic schools.

In modern times, bullying has evolved from schoolyards to the Internet, and from punching and name-calling to suicide and school shootings. In some cases, Catholic school parents have reacted by suing schools for failing to provide a safe environment.

“I’m not paying tuition for my child to be bullied,” is the typical refrain Frank DiLallo hears when parents call his office. He has been a prevention/intervention consultant for Catholic schools in the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, since 1990.

Statistics and anecdotal evidence, however, show that bullying can take place no matter the environment. DiLallo has a response for Catholic schools.

The teachings of Jesus Christ, he said, offer powerful lessons against bullying. To reinforce this point, he developed a Christ-centered anti-bullying program and wrote the book “Peace2U: Three-Phase Bullying Solution” (Alliance for Catholic Education Press, $8.99). He gives presentations to Catholic schools throughout the country, encouraging them to create a Christlike environment of charity.

“Jesus Christ was on the planet for 33 years, and he didn’t eliminate bullying, but it still needs to be addressed,” he said.

Role of Catholic schools

Jodee Blanco experienced bullying throughout most of her years at Catholic schools in the 1970s. Teased, taunted, spat upon, Elmer’s glue spitballs caked in her hair and snow shoved down her throat by two girls while three boys pinned her down are some of the painful memories that once made her wish she was dead. When her mom reported it to the principal, things only got worse.

After high school graduation, Blanco built a successful career as a Hollywood publicist, but the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado inspired her to make a difference in schools. She wrote her New York Times bestselling memoir, “Please Stop Laughing At Me ... One Woman’s Inspirational Story” (Adams Media, $14.99), and its sequel “Please Stop Laughing at Us ...” (BenBella Books, $12.95).

Blanco has presented her advocacy program “It’s NOT Just Joking Around!” to more than half a million people during the last 13 years, including to hundreds of Catholic schools. She will be speaking at the National Catholic Educational Association’s (NCEA) annual convention this month.

Robert Bimonte, NCEA president, said Catholic schools have an important role to play in bullying prevention. “Our Catholic faith teaches children to respect others and emphasizes moral development and self-discipline,” he said. “If you reflect on the mission of any Catholic school, the foundation of the school culture is a place where the teachings of Jesus are not only taught but also practiced.” He added that Catholic teachings provide a positive model to develop the skills needed to prevent bullying.

Blanco said her message of compassion and mercy fits perfectly with Catholic teaching.

“I advocate compassion for the bullies as being an important way to stop the behavior, and Catholic schools embrace that message.”

According to her, bullying occurs in every school. She said it has not changed over the years, but the weaponry has become more sophisticated.

“Kids used to write a note in math class and pass it around to start a rumor,” she said. “Now, a rumor is put out into cyberspace and in minutes, it reaches thousands.”

Two victims

“Bullying is about the desperate need to fit in run amuck,” Blanco said. There are two types of bullying, according to her: the traditional bullies who push people around and those who use exclusion leading kids to think, “There’s something wrong with me.”

Often, those who might be too easily labeled as the “mean, spoiled rich kids” are hurting too, Blanco said.

“Getting everything they want is meaningless when their parents compensate for a lack of involvement by giving them everything they want but nothing of what they need.”

Blanco admitted that it can be hard to feel compassion for the ones who hurt others, so she tells parents and school to ask questions. “If you are curious and find out as much about the bully’s life as you can, you will often learn that they are in a horrible situation,” she said. “And once you feel compassion for the bully, you will be better able to navigate a solution.”

Solutions

DiLallo explained that Jesus often modeled how to handle bullying in Scripture.

“Take the adulterous woman that the crowd is going to stone,” he said. “There was a victim, a crowd of bullies and a defender — Jesus Christ.”

DiLallo
DiLallo
Blanco
Blanco

He said students can be encouraged to consider Scripture and look for the relevance in their own lives.

“We ask students things like, ‘What is Jesus modeling for us in terms of leadership?’” he said. “They can do skits or videotape random acts of kindness and ask, ‘What would Jesus do?’”

His program includes three parts for preventing bullying: using Christ as a model for leadership; building community through actively loving our neighbors; and developing an interpersonal prayer life.

According to Blanco, the old clichés to just walk away or ignore bullies does not work. Compassionate discipline for the bully, she stated, helps them grow character and heart, and produces the best results.

“First, we need to perform triage on the bullied child,” she said. Her suggestions include helping a child identify interests and creating a social life where they can make new friends outside of school.

In the event that a worried parent of a bullied child seems unreasonable or irrational, Blanco recommended that school principals and teachers understand that the parents’ behavior is fear-based. This enables the school representatives to also show compassion toward the parents and to work as partners rather than adversaries.

As for the bullies, Blanco said to keep in mind that kids are motivated by a desperate desire to fit in.

“Adults could see a reduction in bullying if they would remember this and change their approach,” she said. For instance, she cautioned teachers never to chastise a bully in front of his peers but to instead discreetly extricate the victim from the limelight by asking for help or striking up a conversation.

The goal, according to Blanco, is to seek to remember that bullies need support and then positive discipline.

“It doesn’t mean they get away with it,” she said.

When she speaks at schools, Blanco asks students to consider if their own behavior has been hurtful and to tell a teacher or counselor when they see a classmate struggling to fit in or being maligned. An anti-bullying atmosphere is ultimately about compassion, she said.

“Bullying isn’t just the mean things you do, it’s all the nice things you never do on purpose, like letting someone walk to class alone or sit by themselves at lunch, or choosing the same student last whenever you divide into teams in class or gym.”

She asks students that when they see a classmate struggling to fit in or being maligned to tell a teacher or counselor.

“It could change a person’s life,” she said.

Patti Maguire Armstrong writes from North Dakota.