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Borrowed Brains: Q&A with Julie Hertzog, founder of National Bullying Prevention Month

By Dan Cardinali Oct. 13, 2014

It’s National Bullying Prevention Month, and our crack Communications team has launched a national pro bono ad campaign that puts a personal face on the bullying issue and shows how it links to dropout rates. 

Communities In Schools is doing its part to end bullying, but we’re hardly the only ones. Of all the awareness events out there, National Bullying Prevention Month is probably one of the most successful I’ve ever seen. From traditional media to social media, it’s going to seem like everyone is focused on this one very important issue in October.

Given that kind of traction, you might be surprised to know that National Bullying Prevention Month is less than 10 years old, and it all began with one concerned mother at the PACER Center, a Minnesota nonprofit focused on children with disabilities.

For this edition of “Borrowed Brains,” we spoke with Julie Hertzog, Director of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center.

Q: You had a very personal reason for getting involved in this issue. Can you tell me about that?

A: Oftentimes people assume I took up this issue because I was bullied as a kid, but it’s actually much deeper than that. My son David has Down syndrome. When it was time for him to start kindergarten he had a lot of obvious differences from the other kids: He had a feeding tube and a pacemaker and he didn’t talk, he was non-verbal. I knew from my generation that kids with differences were really vulnerable in school, and I just couldn’t let that be his experience. If anyone had the right to be safe at school, it was him and others like him. So David was my passion and my inspiration for getting involved with the PACER Center and the bullying issue in particular.

Q: National Bullying Prevention Month only started in 2006, but it’s really taken on a life of its own, hasn’t it? Tell me about the growth you’ve seen.

A: PACER Center has been around since the 1970s, when the IDEA act gave children with disabilities the right to attend school. PACER was founded to help parents understand their rights and get the best education for their children.

Our connection to bullying started around 2000 when we noticed more parents were contacting us about bullying situations in school. At that time, bullying was considered a natural part of growing up. We said, “No, that’s not right. All kids have the right to be safe.” That’s when we founded the National Bullying Prevention Center with the belief that you can change behavior by changing the culture. And you change the culture by raising awareness, starting conversations, and providing education.

A few years later we looked around and realized there weren’t any national awareness events going on, so our board encouraged us to design a week. The first National Bullying Prevention Week was launched back in October of 2006. We chose October because we wanted to talk about the bullying issue early in the year, but after things had settled down from back-to-school season. From the start had great national partners, including the National PTA and the National Education Association. They really helped us push things forward, and by 2010 there was such a demand for these conversations that we evolved it to a full month.

I think one reason this has caught on is that we try to be thoughtful and positive in what we do. We work with schools and parents and kids, encouraging everyone to come together to prevent bullying. We want students to take ownership of this issue, and we’ve just redesigned two of our websites, Kids Against Bullying and Teens Against Bullying to speak even more directly to the ones who are most affected by this.

Bullying is also an issue that touches almost everyone in some way. Maybe they experienced it themselves, or maybe their children, or maybe they witnessed it and wanted to help. National Bullying Prevention Month provides that opportunity for anyone to get involved in the conversation. We engage the broader community because the No. 1 question we get is, “How can I help?” We try to provide accessible, inexpensive resources for anyone who wants to get involved, whether it’s wearing orange on Unity Day [Oct. 21], signing a digital petition, or joining one of our Run Walk Roll Against Bullying events across the country.

Q: You developed a peer advocacy approach that enlists student volunteers to act as a voice for those who are different. Is it only the “popular kids” who become advocates? I’m wondering if something like this might provide some marginalized, at-risk kids with a sense of purpose for staying in school.

A: I love this question! Let me go back to my personal story: When David was ready to enter middle school, we realized that the dynamic was going to change. He’d be changing classes, so he wouldn’t be with the same teacher in the same, safe classroom all the time. David was still non-verbal, but he had made a lot of friends, and I saw that those friends could become his eyes and ears and voice throughout the day in a way that no adult ever could.

We decided to train four kids who liked David to help and advocate and report any problems to a teacher. Ironically, only one of those was what I would call a leader or a “popular kid.” The others were just good kids who wanted to do the right thing. Anyway, they started talking to their friends about what they were doing, and within a month it grew from four kids to 16 kids, just by word of mouth. By the end of 6th grade, 51 kids asked to be involved; they weren’t recruited, they came to us.

We started this effort for kids like David with obvious differences, but we found that some of the advocates had differences of their own that were more subtle – maybe ADHD or dyslexia or some other learning or developmental disability. They created an amazing group dynamic, reinforcing support for each other. When the year was over, we did exit surveys and 100% of the advocates said they felt like they helped to improve someone else’s life, and 100% wanted to do it again next year. So being an advocate for others gave them a sense of purpose that went beyond the normal concerns of the school day.

Q: Finally, what’s the role for adults in all of this? In thousands of schools nationwide, we have trained Site Coordinators who form personal relationships with at-risk students. If they could do or say one thing to help prevent bullying, what would it be?

Great question and it’s a challenge to pick just one thing. My instinct though is to share that it’s so important that for any student who has ever felt vulnerable, or isolated, that they know that they are not alone. They need to know that someone cares, that there are people who will help them. To be the person in a role in which you literally change a young person’s life by letting them know they are supported is really powerful.


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