Just for a minute, look at things the way some of Ethan Steinberg's classmates at the
|by David Holzel Senior Writer|
Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School see them.
Someone walks away from his computer but leaves the screen open to the class's Facebook page.
Wide open. So someone else - Classmate B - sneaks up to the keyboard and writes something
on the page about Classmate C. Now everybody thinks Classmate A did it.
Ha ha, pretty funny, right?
"It happens so much that when someone posts something questionable on Facebook,
you can't ask questions, because you don't even know who to ask," says Ethan, who is 15.
And this hints at what makes bullying so hard to pin down, so impossible to suppress and so
frustrating to respond to. If you're a teacher, or a Jewish day school, how do you know
when you're swatting at a joke or nipping something serious in the bud?
"What makes anyone become a bully in the first place?" Ethan says.
"They think it's funny and they think people will like them for it."
"Teenagers think everything is a joke 'I was just joking. He's my friend,'"says Roz Landy,
dean of students at CES-JDS. "They're not mean. They're thoughtless."
Still, no one doubts that there are both bullies and bullied in Jewish days schools, just as
there are in public schools. And while bullying has "been on the radar" for a long time,
as one school counselor puts it, interest in how schools combat bullying has only intensified
since the recent well-publicized suicides that were blamed on bullying and anti-gay harassment,
and the release of the documentary Bully.
So how do Washington-area day schools fight bullying?
They begin with a definition: Bullying is behavior that is repeated, malicious and takes advantage
of an unequal balance of power. If two kids the same size tussle once on the playground,
it's not bullying. But if a pack of kids shoves another kid into his locker every time they see him
- that's bullying.
And they enter the arena with the understanding that kids bully other kids for a variety of reasons.
Often the bully is being bullied himself. There may be other family problems. Schools try to ferret
A recent U.S. government survey found that in 2009, about 28 percent of students ages 12-18
reported being bullied at school during the school year.
"It is, unfortunately, a part of human nature," says Moshe Ben-Lev, education director at Northern
Virginia Hebrew Congregation, in Reston, whose children attend area Jewish day schools.
Once, reports of bullying were shrugged off as "kids will be kids." Not anymore. The stakes are
too high, as many adults will attest.
Counseling bully and bullied
"Parents tell me, 'I'm not going to let happen to my child what happened to me,' "
says Susan Koss, lower school principal of the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy. In addition
to leaving bad memories, bullying can lead to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in adults. "We realize the long-lasting effect bullying can have."
So Koss starts early. Kindergarteners are taught about making friendships and how to be a friend,
because some children will walk up to a group already at play, "and you can just see the circle
open up for them," Koss says. "Another kid might not have the oomph to enter the group or know
how to ask. We try to empower all the children to interact and play to their comfort level."
For older students, the school's Middah program takes values such as compassion, respect,
cooperation and kindness "and gives them a Hebrew and Jewish face," says lower school counselor
An hour-long anti-bullying lesson comes at the expense of an hour of academics in the crowded
schedule. "But it's worth it for the time teachers are going to save throughout the year," Koss says.
Explains Handloff, "Students who are socially and emotionally comfortable make better learners."
Once upon a time, children learned to play unsupervised, as they rang the bell of friends' houses
and roamed the neighborhood by foot or bike. The disappearance of unstructured play time has
left kids at a loss for what to do when they come across some, Koss says. Or handle the other
kids they find there.
"Five years ago, if two kids had a disagreement on the playground, the response was, 'Work it
out yourselves,' " Handloff says. But that approach has changed.
"I find the more time I spend at recess, the fewer interventions I need to be doing when the kids
go back into school," she says. "The kids are getting better at saying they're sorry, at working it
out and asking for help."
In cases of bullying, "we work with both the bully and the victim," she adds. "Kids are not mean
for no reason. It's important to validate the child's feelings and channel it to more appropriate
Parents whose children misbehave often will find themselves in Koss's office. "We recommend
outside intervention and counseling for the child more than we used to," she says. "The bottom
line is that the kids have to be communicating with their parents. If a parent can't talk to a child
at this age, oy vey for later on."
And everything is happening sooner.
"It seems the social dynamics get younger and younger," says Alexis Herschthal, guidance
counselor at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation's Capital. She and Sharon Freundel,
the school's director of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, take a good cop-bad cop approach to
student conflict. "We differentiate between discipline and guidance, because there are two
parties to the conflict who need guidance," Freundel says.
Students involved in teasing or a physical altercation first meet with Freundel, the guide and
disciplinarian. Then Herschthal meets separately with the students involved to provide support
and guidance. "If the students can dialogue constructively together, we talk about managing
emotions, solving problems, communicating with others, how to advocate for yourself," she says.
"I often say to a child, 'How are you going to make this right?' " Freundel says. "Sometimes
saying 'I'm sorry' is not enough."
Their goal is to make the victim feel safe and to find out what is at the root of the bully's actions.
"Most interventions in our school are not day-after-day pure bullying. Mostly it's students being
mean," Freundel adds.
Training teachers to manage a situation is critical, because "teachers are the first responders,"
she says. "If a bullying incident happens, they're the ones on the scene. And they're the ones
kids feel comfortable approaching."
'Without prying eyes'
Schools are more likely to be successful handling bullying if their students are in sixth grade or
younger. After that, all bets are off. "The older the kids, the more sophisticated ways they find
to do it without prying eyes," says Ben-Lev, the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation's
The film Bully graphically showed just how far student abuse of each other can go. It shocked
the seventh graders from Gesher Jewish Day School when they saw it. The school's middle
school director and counselor led the class in a guided discussion.
In fact, faculty and middle-schoolers meet regularly. For five years now, Gesher has conducted
what it calls its Advisory Group program. Once a week kids divide into groups of eight and
meet with school faculty. Through trigger questions and other methods, the faculty takes the
"It's an early warning system," says Dr. Zvi Schoenberg, head of school. "It can be effective,
but it's not fail-safe."
The school teaches anti-bullying practices as part of its family life curriculum. "We like to label
things with Jewish names, lashon hara [gossip], for example. Speaking kindly is an annual project.
So it comes up again and again."
Seventh and eighth graders also participate in "Head, Heart and Hand," a mitzvah-based
program in which the students study rabbinic texts about a Jewish value, learn about its
real-life application and then put the value into action.
The school has been working with the Jewish Social Service Agency in Northern Virginia to
educate students, parents and faculty about bullying. "If you can get buy-in from all three groups,
you can really change the dynamic of the community," says Andrew McGahan, the agency's
Bullying, says Roz Landy of CES-JDS, rarely happens in the big public flourish of a fight.
"Bullying is the whisper in the hallway, under their breath."
Experts say bullying is most likely to happen in the places where adults are not looking:
the bathrooms, the lunchroom, the gym, the playground, as well as in the hallways.
Bullying can begin in the rolling of the eyes. Faculty watch for that eye rolling.
The school reinforces its anti-bullying lessons during assemblies with guest speakers and in
small group activities with school counselors. "Our teachers are trained because those
messages have to be reinforced in the classroom," Kay says.
Discipline is combined with education and reflection. Students must complete a reflective
writing assignment, in which they apologize to their victim, reflect on their actions and
consider a Jewish text. Kay declined to elaborate on how the school works to prevent bullying.
CES-JDS also keeps an eye open for best practices elsewhere. This year the school investigated
a program at Wakefield High School in Arlington, called Project Upstanders, in which groups
of students meet regularly with faculty to talk about the bullying they've seen.
The effort is part of a recent trend aiming to get students who see bullying happening to speak
up and try to defuse the situation. It's a tough slog, because kids don't want to be seen as
tattling and open themselves up to retribution, McGahan says. "But we try to empower this
group because they're more effective than the adults."
Everyone agrees that the ultimate empty hallway is the Internet. Except now, the adults often
don't know where the hallway is.
"It's becoming the preferred method for bullying," McGahan says. "Kids are way ahead of their
parents in where you can post things. Every cell phone has texting and a camera and Photoshop
and boom you can send it out."
Kids share account passwords as a show of friendship, which makes them vulnerable to a peer
with bad intentions. Once someone sends a cruel text, or makes an embarrassing comment
on Facebook, the victim ends up hurt in a very public way.
"We hold students accountable for inappropriate comments on the Internet," Kay says.
"We do it because it can have an effect on what happens in school. We don't go looking for it.
But if someone brings us, for example, a printout, we'll take action."
Fourth to sixth-graders at the Jewish Primary Day School learn about Internet safety as part
of their health and wellness unit. But the school places ultimate responsibility for the children's
behavior squarely on parents.Even if students, parents and faculty all work together, the best schools can do is manage the
problem. "If you want to eliminate bullying, you have to eliminate poverty, abuse and exposure
to evil things," Moshe Ben-Lev says. Posting signs that say "Bully Free Zone," as many schools
have, won't eliminate the behavior, which is complex and stems from the animal fact that
children are children.