Hurt Kids Hurt Kids: How One D.C. School is Attempting to Break the Bully Cycle
“I’ve been called ‘big nose’, they make fun of my curly hair, and I get bullied for my accent. They call my language stupid. I get bullied for my skin color all the time, they say my skin is too Black. I don't know what that means, but it hurts me,” Janet, a seventh grader at Cardozo Education Campus in Washington, DC, says of her experience with bullies, an example of the persistent problem facing youth across the country.
When research nonprofit YouthTruth reported that bullying had risen in communities across the country by three percent—seven percent for students of color—since 2016, outlets like The 74 grappled with why this extensively addressed issue was not only failing to improve but appeared to be worsening. While some question whether political tribalism is contributing to the vitriol in today’s cultural landscape, there’s evidence that hate incidents, race-based bullying, and cyberbullying are on the rise in schools around the country.
Communities In Schools of the Nation’s Capital site coordinator Monique Baker supports students grades six through twelve at Cardozo. “We encounter bullying every day. . . it manifests in a variety of ways, particularly given the developmental age and gender of the students involved.” With the middle schoolers, Monique sees more verbal and physical abuse—demeaning language, threats, name calling—and physical aggression like pushing and kicking. But in high school, the bullying turns relational. Emotional abuse like rumor spreading, ostracization, sexual harassment, and cyber bullying via social media where kids “expose” secrets, illicit photos, and gossipy text message screen-shots.
As a school community, Cardozo has struggled with how to best manage bullying. “Just when we think we have a handle on addressing issues related to bullying, hurt children find new ways to bully. Bullying prevention and intervention require consistent attention.” Caring adults, Monique explains, must be ready to address the underlying issues of bullying: trauma, abuse, low self-esteem, and anxiety, all problems caused by bullying, too.
The US government recognizes bullying as an ACE (adverse childhood experience) that can have long-term effects on physical and emotional health. The same CDC study found that even those who witness bullying are at a higher rate for alcohol and drug use, depression, sleep disturbance, heart disease, and eating disorders, creating even more unhappy youth who may lash out at others, perpetuating the cycle.
Last year, all Communities In Schools of the Nation’s Capital site coordinators were certified in Restorative Practices, a strategy that focuses on repairing damaged relationships through genuine remorse and understanding. Guiding questions help the bullied student express their experience and pain and encourage the bully to reflect on the harm done by their actions. In the spirit of personal responsibility, forgiveness, and commitment to improvement, both the bully and the bullied strategize how to make things right and mitigate a reoccurrence.
Monique has found that the practices have helped her and her colleagues navigate repairing relationships between the harmer and the harmed. “With relationship come understanding, and when you really understand each other, bullying stops,” she says.
As for Janet, “Our [CIS] office has become a safe place where students are heard and their concerns about safety will be addressed,” Monique says. “Most middle school students face bullying at some point, but we want to ensure that those experiences are balanced with encouragement and affirmation, that we are helping them to develop a better sense of self and self-worth. That they feel valued and worthy and know how amazing, bright, and capable they are.”