Address bullying with love, compassion

ORLANDO, Fla. - "Bullying" can be a testy topic for which few agree on any single definition, let alone the best way to respond once it happens in or around the classroom.

Still, no fewer than six presenters at an annual convention for Catholic educators took on the problems and controversies surrounding student and school-related bullying during the National Catholic Educational Association's gathering in Orlando last month.

Frank DiLallo, a diocesan case manager and consultant to Catholic schools in the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, said he defines the phenomenon as one causing physical or emotional harm to a student and one also interfering with learning.

DiLallo, who is responsible for responding to virtually all reported incidents of bullying in his diocese, was among the NCEA presenters who said he would prefer not to even use the words "bullying" and "victims" when helping students and parents respond to an incident, and that all parties deserve a compassionate response.

"Mother Teresa said we cannot do great things, we can only do little things with great love, and I think there is a lot to be said for being loving and compassionate around this area," DiLallo said, adding he urges Catholic schools staff not to shy away from first praying with all parties before handling a bullying report.

He urges each particular school community to define for itself precisely what the benchmarks will be for unacceptable student behavior, adding research shows one-shot presentations about bullying are not sufficient and that bullying-prevention requires training infused into overall school programing.

He gave an example of how to talk to parents about a report of bullying without incurring pushback.

"I think we are serving our parents better when we say something like, 'There has been some mistreatment going on in the school, and I would like to partner up with you to help serve you and make sure your child is safe and work through this together,'" said DiLallo, who is author of a bullying-prevention program, "Peace Be With You: A Christ-Centered Bullying Solution."

"Let's get down to the person and what is happening there. We are all about formation, so it is about every situation that comes up and making it a teachable moment and planting a seed for helping that student in formation," he said. "That's what's different (at Catholic schools) and what Christ calls us to do."

Carynn Wiggins, principal of Our Lady of Fatima School in Monroe, La., in the Diocese of Shreveport, in her NCEA session, "Dealing with Bullying in Catholic Schools," cited research indicating that physical bullying peaks in middle school and levels off in high school, whereas verbal bullying stays constant throughout.

"Girls have a more subtle style of bullying and are therefore harder to catch," said Wiggins, who urges her school's staff to stay engaged with students throughout the day to reduce the time and space for bullying to fester.

"One of the greatest deterrents we have is friendship: Children with friends tend not to be bullied as much," she said, adding that online and cyberbullying is "almost impossible to get away from because it is there all the time, the audience has no boundaries and easily grows exponentially."

The greatest gift she said educators can give children is to teach them to first try to resolve their own conflicts but ultimately to respond to bullying participants "as an individual, and how can I help them as if it were your own child?"

Chicago-based bullying expert Jodee Blanco, who has four books on the topic and gave a talk at NCEA on parents who bully schools, told Catholic News Service she offers an on-site daylong program with student presentations, faculty workshop and a parent-family seminar called "It's Not Just Joking Around."

"Thirty years ago if you wanted to start a rumor about somebody you passed it around math class; today that same rumor can be uploaded on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest or Snapchatted to a thousand people with the push of a button or group-texted the same way," Blanco said.

When she goes into schools, Blanco said she also meets what she calls the "elite tormentors" who realize they are bullying and who want to change.

Blanco urges educators abandon the old cliches about bullying, and encourages them to help bullied students to find alternative social outlets and clubs outside of school with new friends. She urges schools "to find compassionate forms of discipline that teach kids the joy of being kind."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015