Standing Up & Speaking Out

Holly St. Lifer
May 13, 2002

It's Farheen Haider's turn to speak. Today's high school assembly is introducing a bully awareness and prevention program and this sophomore from Pakistan has agreed to tell her story. Farheen is eloquent and confident. Dressed in jeans, she also proudly wears a hajib, the traditional scarf worn by Muslim women. She speaks from the heart, smiling easily. It's hard to imagine anyone picking on her.

"I moved to this country when I was eight years old—right after the Oklahoma bombings," she begins. "On the first day of school and for the rest of the year, kids would call me terrorist, they'd sneer, ?go back to your country!' and they'd pull off my scarf," says Farheen, lifting her hand to her covered head. In fifth grade when her family moved to the mostly-white suburb of Westwood, New Jersey, the abuse got worse. "There was even a Farheen Hate Group. Every day brought a new, hurtful incident and each night I fell asleep in tears. People don't realize that the things they say can damage someone for life."

Finding Help, Helping Herself
The more she was taunted the more determined she became to challenge people's opinion of her. "I refused to take off the hajib. One aspect of bullying comes from extreme ignorance—think of it, kids were judging me based on a simple scarf! Then at one point in middle school, life turned around."

That point came when a particularly hard day sent Farheen to the nurse in tears. The nurse told her about peer mediation. Farheen didn't sign up for the program right away, but just knowing about it helped. "For the first time since I came to America, I felt like I didn't have to deal with this alone." A few weeks later, she decided to participate in the school's program.

Farheen may have felt alone, yet as a target of bullying she had plenty of company. An April, 2001 report from the American Medical Association estimated that approximately 3.7 million youths engage in moderate or serious bullying each year, while 3.2 million are victims of such bullying.

Schools, States Take Aim at Bullying
In response to an increasingly dangerous school environment, many schools like Farheen's Pascack Valley High School are now taking action. According to the National School Safety Commission, within the last year several states have passed laws mandating anti-bullying curriculum: Colorado, Washington, West Virginia, New Hampshire and Illinois. Requests for the NSSC to provide in-school training to educators have doubled.

Peer mediation, which uses conflict resolution as a means to settle disputes, is at the core of successful programs that also include staff development and a revision of curriculum designed to identify and reduce the incidents of bias and bullying. Students are trained as mediators to help those in conflict reach agreements that are workable for them. The types of disputes that are mediated involve the very common, yet subtle forms of harassment known as "relational bullying"—rumors, name calling, fighting, verbal threats. Such harassment is believed to be even more emotionally scarring than physical abuse, according to Janice Countess, executive director of Peer Mediation Programs, the program used in Farheen's school.

Face to Face
Through this program, Farheen met with a member of the Farheen Hate Group. "It was a great relief to sit across from this girl and finally ask, "Why? I found out these girls were jealous of my pride, of my refusal to change myself in order to be accepted. But once we talked about it face to face, we were both able to see one another in a different light. Some of the girls from that hate group even became friends of mine."

Peer mediation works because everyone benefits. "The target feels empowered rather than victimized and the bully must account for his actions and explain them among his peers, which tends to diffuse the aggressive behavior," says Countess. "Also, as in Farheen's case, when kids are brave enough to share their experiences publicly, the student body responds proactively. Now rather than passively observing, students are more apt to witness and report these incidents."

Speaking openly about her experiences has done more than inspire students to take action. "Now, rather than being shunned, everyone gravitates toward her. They see her warm personality and strong character first, her hajib second," says Barbara Ann DeCaro, a physical and sex education teacher who heads up the program. "Farheen is a living, breathing symbol of challenging stereotypes, daring people to see her for who she really is beyond appearance."

Next Steps
Last year Farheen wanted to broaden the scope of the current program. She created Origins, a 20-student in-school group focussing on raising awareness about individual bias specific to cultural differences. Her eventual goal is to take it out of school and into her community. After several scary incidents in which Farheen was publicly harassed following the World Trade Center bombings, she also set up a support group for kids who were being targeted. "I wanted anyone who was afraid to have a place to talk about his or her fears. When we lose our self-esteem, we lose everything."

Farheen continues to stand out in a crowd, proudly. "Our society teaches us to be wary of those that are different and that's what I want to change, one person at a time. I feel this is the purpose of my life. To open people's eyes to see the beauty of all our various cultures and races. I hope I'll get there some day."

Ideas for Action
For information about starting an anti-bully program in your school or community, you can start with these resources:

 

  • BullyProof engages schools, parents, and kids in helping young people find ways to avoid conflicts and violence.

     

  • Best Practices in Youth Violence Prevention. Learn about the successful community-based efforts to curb youth violence in this guide from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

     

  • The National School Safety Center has a number to call: 805.373.9977.

     

  • Court TV's Choices and Consequences Initiative has more information.

     


#

tags