January 25, 2013

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Peer program strives to spare students from bullying

Grade school students compose an anti-bullying pledge during a program at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

Grade school students compose an anti-bullying pledge during a program at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

By Mary Ann Garber

Bully.

Just reading that word or hearing it spoken is enough to prompt an emotional reaction—especially for people who have been the victim of psychological harassment or physical mistreatment as a child or adult.

It brings to mind the ugliness and unpleasantness of being dominated by someone who wants to cause trouble and scare or humiliate his or her peers.

Bully, a controversial and heartbreaking 2012 documentary film distributed nationally, has helped educate students and adults about the harmful effects of abusive behavior on others.

Sadly, many school campuses—even Catholic elementary schools and high schools—can be an environment for bullying.

Responding to that concern, Cathedral High School, a private Catholic school in Indianapolis, instituted an anti-bullying program called Project Irish in 2006.

The peer ministry organization’s name, which is also the name of the school’s athletic teams, stands for “Instilling Respect in Stopping Harrassment.”

Presentations educate students about the definition of bullying as well as its root causes and serious consequences, campus minister Charlene Witka explained, so they are empowered to support and protect other teenagers experiencing harassment at school or during social events.

“It’s pretty typical for any school or any business, in fact,” Witka said, “so we formed a teen group with the help of an outside counselor who had some expertise in [ways to cope with] bullying.”

Members of the group are “dedicated to speaking out against bullying and creating a safe environment where all students can thrive and learn,” she said.

Cathedral students also wrote a school pledge to promote respect for every teenager.

“We believe that everybody should enjoy our school equally,” the pledge states, “and feel safe and secure while being accepted, regardless of race, gender, popularity, athletic abilities, personal interests, economic status, intelligence, religion and nationality. This is why we—the students of Cathedral High School—agree to join together to end bullying in our school.”

Twenty students representing each class completed a training course to act as conflict mediators on the school campus. Their goal is to involve every student in creating respectful relationships among classmates.

“We talk about the impact of bullying,” Witka said, “what it is, the different types and what it does to a person. Cyberbullying is a big problem now” for many American teenagers that are targeted by other teens via social media sites on the Internet.

Project Irish teaches students that no one should be allowed to exert power over other people with the intention of humiliating or demeaning them.

“It isn’t a normal part of development,” Witka said. “We also talk about the role of bystanders, and how you are just as involved [in bullying] even if you’re just standing there letting somebody do that to another person.”

Students are often reluctant to talk with their parents about problems at school, Witka said, so Cathedral officials instituted faculty advocates for both the victim and the bully, who receive confidential counseling.

“Both individuals need attention,” she said.

School officials are pleased that Project Irish has resolved many student conflicts.

“A freshman who is active in Project Irish was bullied terribly at her grade school,” Witka said. “She has told her story three times, and she’s just amazed at how well she feels about herself now and how she did not feel that she would ever have the courage to do this. It’s just wonderful to see the growth in her.”

Early education and intervention helps younger students cope with bullying, Witka said, so Project Irish members presented a retreat for seventh- and eighth-grade students last fall.

“They were asked to create an anti-bullying pledge for their school,” Witka said, “and a plan for what they could do at their school to end bullying.”

Project Irish co-chairs this year are Cathedral seniors Holly Baker, a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, and Matt Huber, a member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Carmel, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese.

They joined the peer ministry organization because of challenging middle school experiences with students who wanted to make life difficult—and even miserable—for other youths.

“Middle school was brutal,” Matt said. “One boy that I know has a disability and can’t see very well. He also has a speech impediment and can’t hear very well, and people picked on him a lot for that. I hated it. I was in his science class, and I got to know him pretty well and he became a good friend.”

It was hard to see his friend suffer so much pain from harassment, Matt said, so he is glad to have the training to intervene in bullying situations to help his peers in non-conflict ways.

“Freshmen come in and obviously they’re scared because they come from different schools, and they have to meet new people and get used to high school,” Matt said. “I think they form cliques pretty quickly and have a tight group of friends. But as the years go on, by senior year everybody is friends. … You build that family [relationship] as you go.”

Project Irish focuses on both the victim’s feelings and the bully’s feelings.

“I think some people do lash out because of frustrations,” Matt said. “Every bully has an issue. They try to gain power. I think some people bottle up their emotions. Nobody can really know what is going on in that student’s life outside of school.”

Project Irish members organized an educational program for each grade before the start of school last fall to help the students understand the harm that results from cyberbullying.

“We try to stop the problems because no one should suffer because of bullying,” Matt said. “We tell the students that Project Irish members will sit down and listen to them, and try to help them out. Everything is always confidential.”

Showing respect for others is emphasized every day, Holly said. “Respect is a huge thing here in the classroom, with your teachers, with your classmates, with everyone.” †

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