Muktaru Jalloh, a senior at Wakefield High School, distinctively remembers an incident in 10th grade that changed his life and made him the person he is today. He was playing basketball with a few classmates during open gym. He blocked the shot of a ninth-grader who was much smaller than him. The ninth-grader turned around and out of nowhere punched Jalloh right in the face.
Jalloh had two choices: Punch the kid back and not look like a coward in front of his friends, or simply walk away.
In that short moment, he thought about his future and decided not to react to the present. With that maturity, Jalloh was able to walk away from the situation and avoid months or years of possible punishment from the school and his parents.
He is now student government president, has been accepted to the University of West Virginia and George Mason University, and is part of Project Upstander – a program at Wakefield that encourages its students to stand up against bullying.
“My parents and the staff at Wakefield helped me and encouraged me not to retaliate after the incident,” Jalloh said. “I feel a lot more mature than that other guy by the way I reacted… I hope that other kids will be open-minded when they are bullied and not think about the present, but think about their future. Life does go on.”
Bullying continues to be a major problem in schools. Nearly one-third of American teens are involved in bullying, and those who are bullied can develop depression and anxiety. As every child tries to fit in and find his or her niche, more pressure is created and some struggle with insecurity.
Alfred Reid, a counselor at Wakefield who helped Jalloh, was inspired to start Project Upstanders after he attended an exhibit hosted by Facing History and Ourselves.
“Bullying is a dirty business,“ Reid said. “After I left that exhibit, I realized that this is the way to teach students how to stand up against bullying.”
Facing History and Ourselves’ mission is simple: They want students to become upstanders – not bystanders. So many children witness bullying and are afraid to stand up against it. The organization is trying to turn this around. “The heroes we need today don’t need super powers. They need to speak up in the face of injustice. Ask Questions. Empathize. Combat bigotry. Nurture democracy. We call them Upstanders,” according to the Facing History website.
About 72 students are involved in Wakefield’s upstander program. They are split into 10 different teams, each with about seven or eight teens and a teacher or counselor. The teams meet twice a month to talk about bullying they’ve seen and discuss what they can do to encourage their peers to stand up against such harassment.
Wakefield’s upstanders include sports captains, class presidents and trendsetters. Each attended an all-day training program in September where they learned about bullying and how many students are affected by it, different scenarios of kids being bullied, and what they can do to prevent it.
Erin Kelly, a senior and upstander at Wakefield, recently spoke to a visiting eighth-grade class from Gunston Middle School about the effects of bullying and how students can make a difference in stopping it. She also showed them a map of the high school where bullying occurs most – places like the boys' locker room. Wakefield upstanders surveyed every classroom to design the map.
“I really felt like I made an impact with the upcoming ninth-grade class,” Kelly said. “They really listened to what I had to say.”
Having students teach other students about bullying is one of the many reasons Project Upstanders is so effective, Reid said. Teens listen to each other more than they do adults.
“We want our kids to have a positive impact on their peers,” Reid said. “There is no requirement to being an upstander, but just a desire to impact others and do the right thing.”
The importance of strong relationships
Claire Peters, an assistant principal at Washington-Lee High School, is thinking about adding a Project Upstanders program at her school. Washington-Lee already has anti-bullying programs in place, which include the Freshman Connection and school assemblies to discuss bullying. The Freshman Connection splits the ninth-grade class into different "communities" where they take general classes (math, science, English) with the same students. The thinking is that allows the students to develop stronger relationships with each other and their teachers.
"We hope that by being part of this program, our students will get to know other adults and create relationships more quickly," Peters said. "If they feel comfortable with an adult like a teacher or counselor, they will be more willing to come forward about being bullied or witnessing bullying."
Across Arlington, preventing bullying and creating strong relationships with teachers and staff is encouraged starting at the elementary level, Peters said. Students who enter her school already are aware of this message and many feel comfortable talking to adults about their problems.
New problems, new solutions
But as teachers and administrators work to prevent traditional bullying, the bullies themselves have found other ways to harass their peers.
"I do think technology makes it easier for students to bully," Peters said. "It’s easier for them to do it anonymously."
Cyberbullying allows the antagonist to avoid seeing or feeling the sad emotions of his or her victim, Reid said. Emotions are left to be inferred. Schools are working on ways to combat threats made through relatively new channels of communication.
Recently, a handful of Wakefield bullies harassed a group of female students by posting anonymous, degrading comments about them a SMART Board – an interactive white board used in classrooms.
In response, 12 of the school's upstanders spoke to their class about the negative effects of bullying. They also did an exercise where the everyone's names were passed around and each student had to say something positive about the other. The exercise was designed to boost the teens' self-esteem and encourage them to communicate positively instead of negatively.
Jalloh said he felt compelled to be an upstander after experiencing bullying himself and knowing friends who went through similar incidents.
“I commend Wakefield for its creativity,” Jalloh said. “Our counselors and teachers make up what it really means to be an upstander.”
This month, Wakefield held another upstander training to bring in a whole new group of students interested in standing against harassment. The upstanders are planning a week of action to get everyone in school to stand up against bullies.
Looks like the school bully is soon going to be outnumbered.