The Rural School Poised to End Bullying

In the constant battle against mean girls and boys, one district in New Hampshire is intervening with a student-driven approach.

A student's hand is shown holding an iPhone.
Students at Pittsfield Middle High School say texting has replaced talking in many of their interactions with their friends, complicating their relationships.  (Jim Vaiknoras / The Hechinger Report)

PITTSFIELD, N.H. — “I literally hate you. You’re a round cereal box.”

By the time these words got back to 14-year-old Tori, the Snapchat image they went with—of her from behind as she took notes in biology class—had long disappeared. But a screenshot lingered, got passed around, and soon kids were saying, “Hey, cereal box,” as they passed Tori in the hallway.

Tori recognized herself, of course. Her hair was neatly divided into two braids, and she was in her usual seat in her ninth-grade classroom at Pittsfield Middle High School in rural New Hampshire.

Her first impulse had been to laugh. What does that even mean, “a round cereal box”? But then the insult started to sting. Was it a reference to her petite size, she wondered, or the muscles she has built up through years of competitive team sports? The words—“I literally hate you”—leapt off the screen.

“If you have a problem and you hate me, just tell me,” says Tori now. (She asked that her full name be withheld because of online harassment she experienced after the Snapchat incident.) “Why do you have to tell the whole world?”

To some, this might sound like little more than classic Mean Girls behavior, as immortalized in the 2004 cult teen flick, but it can include mean boys, too. Introduce modern technology, and interactions can quickly grow from mischievous to malicious. Indeed, schools nationwide are dealing with the ramifications of social media. The old-fashioned game of telephone has gone high tech, and it’s being played seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

In communities as small as Pittsfield, a former mill town with about 4,600 residents in New Hampshire’s Suncook Valley, what students refer to as “drama” is especially prone to escalation. And it’s happening with distressing frequency, both online and on campus. “Rumors get around faster and stay around longer,” said Rebecca Smith, a freshman. “You can’t get away from it.”

As Jenny Wellington, who teaches English at Pittsfield, put it recently to her class: “You’re together like a family, but you’re not lifting each other up like a family. We have to get better at that.”

* * *

There’s plenty of data on students across the country experiencing friction with their peers, from petty harassment to outright bullying—generally defined as repeated, intentional incidents in which the aggressor has more power (more commonly social status than physical strength) than the target. In a 2015 national survey conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 percent of high schoolers said they had been bullied at school the prior year, while 16 percent said they had been bullied online.

If Pittsfield faces the same kinds of challenges—and it seems to—it is also uniquely positioned to address them. Since 2010, the school has used public and private grants to support a student-centered learning approach in which small-group work and individual projects dominate. But there’s also an expectation for collaboration, teamwork, and helping others, and students take greater responsibility for making decisions on everything from daily scheduling to discipline. This, advocates say, can create a stronger connection between academic learning and college and career readiness.

And while there have been measurable gains from the new model, it hasn’t been an easy journey. And it’s clear some among Pittsfield’s roughly 260-strong student body are struggling with their peer relationships. How do school officials know this? Their students are telling them.

Pittsfield conducts an annual survey asking kids how they feel about their school, which serves grades 7 to 12. While statistics can be tricky with a respondent pool this small, school officials are concerned about an increase in negativity over a six-year period. They reported that, since the 2010 survey was given, the percentage of girls who said they felt respected by each other declined 13 points, to 31 percent. And 44 percent of boys said they felt respected by other boys, down from 59 percent. There were also sharp drops in the percentages of boys and girls who said they felt respected by peers of the opposite gender.

There’s more evidence of a school-climate problem. For the past few years Pittsfield’s student-led Restorative Justice Committee has handled some nonviolent violations of school rules, and students can also ask the “JC” to resolve interpersonal disputes. Wellington, who’s one of the faculty advisors to the committee, said there’s been a recent uptick in “drama”-related requests for mediation, involving both girls and boys.

Wellington sees the effects of unkind behavior firsthand. In an elective class she offered last spring focused on female leadership and the hurdles young women might face, the original group of five quickly swelled to 20, as more girls wanted to share their experiences.

A woman stands at a dry-erase board with phrases written on it. She has markers in her hand.
Jenny Wellington, who teaches at Pittsfield Middle High School, leads a discussion during the Drop the Drama class. (Jim Vaiknoras / The Hechinger Report)

“These girls were just broken by each other—‘they’re calling me ugly;’ ‘she’s telling her brother he shouldn’t date me;’ ‘my friend doesn't like me anymore and I don’t know why, ” Wellington said. “It turned into weekly therapy sessions. I realized we needed better strategies for dealing with all of this.”

Under the student-centered model, kids can propose learning opportunities that reflect their specific interests. That’s how a new elective—christened “Drop the Drama” by the students—was launched this fall. About a dozen girls have asked to work with Wellington for the first semester. Their assignments include developing a school-wide campaign to share ideas for improving their school’s environment and drafting a code of conduct. Though girls are taking the lead this time, Wellington said, boys will also be encouraged to get involved: “It can’t be just the girls who are asked to change.”

Greg Facella, a freshman at Pittsfield, agreed that boys are also contributing to the negative atmosphere. It’s hurting everyone, he said, including well-meaning kids who get dragged into disputes after trying to stick up for their friends.

“People are firing at each other on Snapchat, at school, wherever,” Facella said. “They want to stop arguing but they don’t know how once it starts.”

Rosalind Wiseman, an educator and the author of Queen Bees and Wannabees, the nonfiction inspiration for the Mean Girls film, said Pittsfield’s Drop the Drama campaign is taking a smart tack: The most effective interventions are student-led ones.

“Adults should be working with young people side-by-side to develop the best program possible,” said Wiseman, who consults with school communities nationally. “It should not be adults telling kids what to do.”

* * *

Tori easily figured out who posted the Snapchat image, especially given the point of view. Her parents encouraged her to talk directly to the photo taker—no texting, no retaliatory social media posts of her own.

“She didn’t deny it—she just sat there and had that ‘What did I do?’ look,” Tori said. “You know how when you’re really mad and your face starts to get a sort of hot feeling? I knew I had to walk out of the room.”

Riley Duquette, a freshman, knows that feeling. While he described the school environment as generally a friendly place to be, he’s occasionally been subjected to teasing because of his acne. “They call me ‘Pizza Face,’” he said.

But he is able to shrug it off in part because he knows his skin will clear up as he gets older. Immaturity might not be so easily conquered, especially for “people who have no chill,” as Riley described it—teen-speak for an inability to respond appropriately in tense situations, or to shrug off the small stuff.

“Nobody knows how to laugh at themselves,” said Riley, 14. “They only know how to laugh at other people.”

Social skirmishes are familiar to anyone who’s been through adolescence. But what’s different now, experts say, is the near-constant drumbeat of digital communication. Meredith Smith, a Pittsfield junior, shared one recent run-in: As she walked into class, a text message popped up on her phone. It was her friend, standing a few feet from her in the hallway, asking why Meredith hadn’t waved when she passed.

“I can’t even,” Smith said. “No one can do in-person anymore.”

And that’s a relatively benign exchange. Online, “everybody’s meaner,” said one Pittsfield student, who deleted social-media apps from her phone after extensive harassment by schoolmates. “Girls get called ‘whores.’ People say things they wouldn’t say to your face.”

But digital bonds needn’t always be negative. A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center found more than 80 percent of teens said social media “makes them feel more connected to information about their friends’ lives” while 70 percent “feel better connected to their friends’ feelings.” And 68 percent of teen social-media users said they’ve “had people on the platforms supporting them through tough or challenging times.”

So how do young people discriminate between healthy interactions and harmful ones? Who’s responsible for teaching those skills? While parental and family influence can’t be understated, increasingly, educators say, it’s falling to schools to provide those lessons to students.

Given how easily the interpersonal drama can turn into a distraction from learning, educators have little choice but to embrace that responsibility, said John Freeman, the superintendent of Pittsfield Schools. While noting it only takes a handful of kids to produce a big change in a small school’s statistics, Freeman said he’s paying attention to the slide in the “respect” numbers on the campus-climate survey.

“That’s not the culture and community we’re trying to encourage here,” Freeman said. “We want to prepare kids to be thoughtful, contributive members of their communities, not just at school but when they go out into the world. That’s what adult life is about.”

He pointed to issues possibly influencing the data: high turnover among staff and frequent relocation (a quarter of Pittsfield’s students are transient), not to mention other issues many kids face, such as substance abuse, family financial worries, and depression. However, Freeman noted, interventions and social services to date have largely focused on older students. Now the district is looking for new ways to help its elementary-school students develop stronger social and emotional skills early on so they’re better prepared for the challenges that come with adolescence, he said.

Pittsfield’s approach is in line with what research suggests can help kids develop resilience and empathy, said Elizabeth Englander, the director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University. A nationally recognized expert on bullying and school climate, Englander said it doesn’t always take a seismic shift in policy to make schools happier, safer places. Paying attention to “gateway behaviors” can make a big difference, Englander said.

“It can be something as minor as rolling your eyes when somebody else answers a question incorrectly in class or expressing contempt for a particular individual or group,” she said. “These low-level actions are what precede actual bullying, confrontation or drama. If you can address the inappropriate behaviors, you’re going to change the climate of the school.”

* * *

Jenny Wellington’s desk is crowded with tissue paper and glue guns, staplers and construction paper, pipe cleaners and tape. Today’s task for the Drop the Drama class: Make a flower. She hopes to get the girls talking about equity, diversity, and the desire to stand out or fit in.

As the bell rings, a student approaches Wellington to tell her she’s switching to a different class. When asked why, the student says she doesn’t get along with another girl who has also signed up.

“That is literally what this learning studio is about,” Wellington tells her, but the student isn’t swayed. A moment later, Wellington checks the class roster: The second girl has already dropped out.

“So now neither of them will be in here—a missed opportunity,” Wellington says. “This is what we’re up against.”

She breaks the class into small groups and distributes the art supplies. After 15 minutes, the students reconvene to show off their creations.

A student smiles while holding up a paper flower.
Raquel Sheridan, a senior at Pittsfield Middle High School, holds a flower she and classmates made as part of a workshop exercise. (Jim Vaiknoras / The Hechinger Report)

The girls point out that not everyone got the same kind of materials. “The glue gun was useless so we went with the duct tape,” one student explains. And what do their flowers have in common? Each has a stem, and petals. They’d need sunlight and water to grow. Raquel Sheridan, a senior, sums it up: “They’re all beautiful.”

* * *

Even with the support of her family and friends, Tori struggled to put the Snapchat incident out of her mind. While at the local grocery store one evening, she had an idea. She went to the cereal aisle and handed her cellphone to her dad to take a picture.

She posted the photo to her Instagram account: In it, she’s in a pair of denim shorts and a patterned tank top, holding a box of Fruity Pebbles. The caption reads, “Cuz I’m a box of cereal lol.”

“She owned it,” said Wellington of the photo, which Tori showed her a few days later. “It was totally brilliant.”

Being the target of this kind of harassment was an unfamiliar experience for Tori. And the way it made her feel has stuck with her. She’s planning to get involved in the school’s Drop the Drama campaign in the hope of helping some of her peers.

“It made me mad that this happens to a lot of people all of the time,” she said. “That’s not okay.”

This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.