Bullying — A new way to wrestle an old problem

Six-year-old Nevaeh (that’s heaven backwards) discovered a new social structure on the playground when her family returned from a summer vacation.

Photo courtesy of S.A.F.E. Network

Miami, age nine, had moved in, formed a “Girls Club,” and declared Nevaeh mysteriously “not eligible” for membership.

Worse yet, Miami warned all members that playing with Nevaeh was grounds for getting kicked out of the Girls Club.

Seven-year-old Shakira, who had been friends with Navaeh for a year, protested (albeit weakly). Since the Girls Club was playing with Shakira’s Barbie dolls, the girl announced she would be loaning a Barbie and Ken to Navaeh to play with on the other side of the sandbox.

Miami swiftly proclaimed all toys as Girls Club property. No sharing allowed without a 100 percent “thumbs up” vote of members.

Nevaeh stormed home, flooding with tears of injustice. Shakira also sulked home. Miami had called her a “brat” and got some other girls to say it, too.

 Nevaeh and Shakira’s mothers reacted like mama bears, poised to growl and claw to protect their young. Navaeh’s mom, Browyn, made herself take time to let reason rebound before paying a visit to Miami’s mother. Nevertheless, it was an emotional conversation abbreviated by the door being slammed in Browyn’s face.

What do you do?

“If your child has to get bullied, you hope that it happens at school where there are policies and procedures for dealing with it,”  Browyn said. “It’s so frustrating when it happens in the neighborhood and you have to try to resolve it yourself.”

If dealing with bullies makes adults – who have large networks of friends and the ability to research solutions – feel helpless, it must be exponentially tougher for the kids being bullied.

Ninety percent of students say they experienced some degree of bullying or harassment between fourth and eighth grades. Sometimes it’s kicking and hairpulling, but usually it’s verbal (“You’re ugly.” “You’re fat.” “You’re stupid.” “We hate you.”). But words are sufficient to make a kid miserable and start avoiding the bully.

Browyn told me her heart sank when she’d see Nevaeh peek out their front window to see what children were on the playground shared by their housing complex before asking permission to go play. If Miami was there, Nevaeh stayed home.

Schools aren’t Oz, either

Yet schools – even ones that take a tough, anti-bullying stance — don’t have perfect procedures for curtailing bullying, either.

 State laws compel schools to have a bully reporting system, but many are not user-friendly. Many schools have a “Bully Box,” or some other paper-and-pencil method of lodging a complaint in the front office.

Truth is, few kids report this way. Going into the front office and depositing a comment card, or telling the principal face-to-face, hardly seems anonymous.

Admitting that you’re being bullied makes a kid feel weak. Worse yet, it makes them feel like a tattle tail. It’s just too much exposure.

Electronic reporting feels safer

That’s why Doug Ricketts, principal of Public School 121 in Brooklyn, NY, developed a kid-friendly bully reporting website called BongoKidz.com.

Doug Ricketts

[pullquote]“Kids are more comfortable reporting a bully by typing an anonymous complaint and submitting it electronically to their teacher or principal,” said Ricketts, who has been an educator for 12 years. “In New York City we have a bully reporting hotline, but kids would rather type or text. It feels like a safe way to report.”[/pullquote]

Ricketts said he and other principals who have zero tolerance for bullying feel frustrated when they hear about bullying through the grapevine, often months after the fact.

“We can’t do anything about it if we don’t know about it,” Ricketts said with a sigh.

A typical scenario is that the student will have complained at home about being bullied, and a parent will instruct the child to tell the teacher or principal – but he or she never does. The parent concludes that the school “won’t do anything” and the student stays steeped in a miserable situation that manifests as a dislike for school.

Here’s how it works

With BongoKidz.com, Ricketts hopes to give elementary school-aged kids a colorful, safe and anonymous way to report bullying to adults at school, as well absorb empowering messages from cartoon characters.


Star of the website is Lorenzo, a buff lion who blogs from New York City (it’s a jungle out there!). But Lorenzo has a different take on what it means to be tough. You can see it in his Bongo Pledge:

I will never treat others badly. I am an amazing person because I never hurt others. When I see people who need my help, I will help them. I am happy to be who I am. Being kind to others makes me strong.

Lorenzo’s blog also gives young children insights into bullying. Here’s a recent post:

What do you do if you see other kidz being teased at school or on the playground? You can report it immediately to an adult, teacher or principal. You can also talk to the person and ask them why they would tease someone. Kidz who tease others never feel good about themselves. That’s why they do it. Maybe they need friends, but we always know they are sad when they tease.

So, what’s a Bongo kid? Bantastic Omazing Narvelous Gappy Omighty, of course!

BongoKidz.com is effective, Ricketts said, because it establishes a culture of kindness and gives a school community a nonthreatening means to report situations that disturb the peace.

Word is spreading fast

NBC and FOX affiliates in San Diego did stories on BongoKidz.com in spring 2012, when Ricketts launched the site. That story was picked up in 18 markets nationwide, which led up to 1,000 hits per day, which didn’t trail off until summer.

Ricketts said the soft launch allowed him to test-drive the reporting system, especially in schools in New York and California where staff agreed to tell students about it. He said he knew he’d developed a reporting tool that kids would use when Lorenzo was notified of harassment in Ricketts’ own school.


There were surprises

Ricketts could see from comments that many users of the site were older than he’d imagined. Now he’s working with Bryan Winke Design in San Diego to develop a companion anime-themed bully-reporting site that will appeal to middle and high school students.

Ricketts said he was also surprised how many exasperated parents write Lorenzo seeking advice on how to handle a situation involving their child. (When I described BongoKidz.com to Browyn, she said she might have written to Lorenzo, too, not knowing where else to turn.)

Alas, Lorenzo is not Dear Abby (but he may become a cartoon)

Ricketts is determined to make BongoKidz.com the best bully-reporting and kid-empowering website ever before he begins marketing it this fall.

He intends to license BongoKidz.com software with enhanced features to schools. That way, BongoKidz.com would be a program or an app loaded on all school computers or devices.

Staff at schools that license the BongoKidz.com for $1,400 to $1,700 per year would also be entitled to bully prevention training and data analysis of complaints.

Winke Design is developing a cast of characters in diverse size and shape who will have Bongo adventures on the website. Ricketts says his responsibilities as a principal don’t leave him time to oversee an animation but, ultimately, he wants Lorenzo starring in cartoons.

“It’s time cartoons gave kids positive role models,” Ricketts said.

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