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Alternative response to bullying

By Dan Adams
Globe Correspondent / October 13, 2011

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Alye Pollack sits silently, a grim look on her face. One by one, she holds sheets of paper up to the camera.

“Do I look happy?’’ asks one sheet of paper in an adolescent scrawl. “Well, I’m not,’’ answers the next.

This video plea from a bullied Connecticut teen became an online phenomenon, garnering more than 500,000 views since it was posted on YouTube in March. And starting this fall the video will have a new audience: students caught bullying in Needham.

Under a new antibullying program, Needham Youth Services director Jon Mattleman and his staff use YouTube videos and other unconventional strategies in an attempt to not simply punish aggressors, but to transform them.

In Massachusetts, the suicide of bullied South Hadley teen Phoebe Prince last year spawned first-in-the-nation legislation that requires school districts to develop bullying-prevention plans and set up systems to track and report incidents.

But Needham’s Bullying Intervention Program, designed by Mattleman and his staff over the summer, makes the town among the first to supplement its required school-based prevention program with mandatory counseling for bullies who get caught.

“Most school systems just identify these kids and suspend them, and they think that will be a deterrent,’’ said Mattleman. “Our belief in Needham is different. Yes, we want to send a strong message, but we also want to rehabilitate them.’’

The program’s curriculum discards the typical detention period in favor of intensive, 10-hour, one-on-one counseling sessions for bullies, who are referred to the town agency by Needham school officials.

Elizabeth Englander, a bullying specialist who teaches at Bridgewater State University and helped author the state’s antibullying law, said she’s never heard of anything quite like Needham’s approach.

“It’s going a lot further than basically anybody else goes,’’ she said. “Most schools don’t bother themselves with engaging kids in a therapeutic program. They just don’t do that. They leave it up to parents . . . The fact that they’re working hard to get these kids some help is a great thing.’’

During each intervention, Mattleman and town social workers first dig at the root causes of threatening behavior, assessing each bully’s belief system, values, media influences (such as TV shows and video games), and family history. Referred students learn about the legal and personal consequences of bullying, both in their own case and incidents that have been in the news media. They even learn the definition of bullying, which is often more expansive than students assume.

“A lot of kids don’t even realize they’re bullying,’’ said Mattleman. “They say, ‘I thought I was just kind of being a jerk that day.’ You have to break it down.’’

The final stage of the counseling is a skill-building session, said Mattleman, in which students rehearse what to say in different situations.

“We say, ‘OK, you’re going back to school. What will you do if you witness bullying?’ They can understand sitting alone, talking one-on-one, but how do we make them in-time decision-makers?’’

The one-on-one setting is particularly important, Mattleman said, because most youths, especially boys, are reluctant to let their guard down or show weakness in group therapy.

Englander cautioned that while there are many anecdotal successes, no therapy program has ever been proven to reliably change aggressive behavior like bullying. There are just too many factors, she said, including the relationship between the individual therapist and the child’s family.

If Mattleman and Needham Youth Services can demonstrate that their system works, Englander said, “that would be a big contribution.’’

The program is timely. Bullying has been catapulted into the national conversation by a series of tragic deaths blamed on the kind of teasing once dismissed as commonplace.

School systems across the state have scrambled to implement or upgrade bullying prevention programs. Another school district taking a creative approach is in Franklin, where middle school students in anticyberbullying clubs give presentations to elementary schoolers about using the Internet safely and respectfully. Like Needham, Franklin has instituted a comprehensive curriculum from kindergarten through Grade 12 to stamp out bullying before it begins.

“Some of the awareness has really impacted student behavior,’’ said the Franklin district’s superintendent, Maureen Sabolinski. “There haven’t been a lot of incidents recently.’’

Englander said the Massachusetts legislation has vaulted the state ahead of many others.

“I was in another state a few weeks ago, and I was really shocked by the difference in attitude. A principal there actually said to me, ‘There’s no bullying in my school.’ I haven’t heard that from anyone in Massachusetts in two years now. Everybody knows now that it happens everywhere. We’ve really made progress.’’

According to findings from last year’s Metrowest Adolescent Health Survey, taken annually by Needham students, 30 percent of the town’s middle school students say they have been bullied, compared with a regional average of 38 percent.

The survey found that bullying in Needham peaks at 35 percent in 10th grade, but falls to 19 percent by the end of high school. Cyberbullying, harassment on the Internet or by text message, increases dramatically in high school (from 11 percent in seventh grade to 25 percent in 10th grade) as students gain access to cellphones and join online social networks such as Facebook.

These numbers are included in a packet that is distributed to every parent with a child in Needham schools. The packet also gives tips on what parents can do to recognize and prevent bullying.

“We really want to say to parents, this is really serious,’’ said Mattleman. “We want parents to understand that they’re role models. If a child sees their parents bullying someone on the phone or in the store, they’ll mimic that.’’

Reaching parents is important, Mattleman said, because they can have a powerful influence on their children. Unfortunately, parents are often unaware of bullying, especially cyberbullying, which occurs out of public view.

“It used to be, if you were home, you were safe. Now, kids are writing about each other on Facebook, texting, all that. It’s 24-seven.’’

Christine Brumbach, director of student development and program evaluation in the Needham schools, said the new program meshes well with the system’s longstanding focus on “social and emotional learning.’’

Needham has built antibullying lessons into its curriculum, starting with skill-building lessons in elementary school, an advisory program in middle school, and monthly extended homeroom periods in high school that deal with relevant social issues.

“If we didn’t have this infrastructure in place, one could argue that just doing stand-alone bullying and cyberbullying prevention is not going to work,’’ Brumbach said. “Needham had the foresight and values to put this on the front burner 10 years ago.’’

Englander said that because so much bullying goes unreported, such prevention “is the name of the game.

“Once bullying’s done,’’ she said, “there’s only so much you can do.’’

In putting together the new program, Mattleman said, his department “stole’’ bits and pieces of ideas from various conferences and workshops, but its staffers were not afraid to reject strategies that didn’t fit with their real-world experiences.

“A lot of the stuff out there is not that good. It looks good on paper, but if you were a kid, you’d say, ‘Eh, that’s not so good.’ We kind of have a built-in lab here. We’re always asking kids, ‘Did you learn? Was it meaningful?’ ’’

Victims of bullying (“targets,’’ Mattleman calls them) are also welcome at Needham Youth Services, where they get tips on how to be less of a target and what to say if they are being bullied. Counselors also try to provide encouragement.

“It takes a lot of guts for an adolescent boy to say ‘I’ve been bullied,’ ’’ said Mattleman. “It goes against our whole culture. If we can give people language and courage, we’re going to make a difference.’’