It’s tough to find a more simple explanation of the appeal of cyberbullying than one Christine Caron received last Tuesday from a fourth-grader at Eldredge Elementary School.
Her question to the class about why students engage in online and cellphone bullying, insults and namecalling brought this response:
“Because I don’t have to look them in the face.”
“I’ve been doing this for 12 years, and this has all come about in the past year,” said Caron, who brought her TalkWorks antibullying program to Eldredge.
The program, which also uses three actors to help students learn how to handle difficult situations through roleplaying exercises.
“It’s designed to raise awareness among students, parents and teachers of bullying and how to address it,” Caron said.
While TalkWorks covers traditional bullying situations taking place in the schoolyard, the cafeteria and on school buses, technology-assisted bullying has rapidly become a major emphasis of her presentations.
“When I asked how many students had cellphones, one third had them, and one third were going to get them. When I asked how many of them had rules on using them, maybe two raised their hands. Kids need some parameters when they start getting cell phones,” she said.
Caron has brought her program to students from kindergarten through eighth throughout schools in East Greenwich, her hometown of North Kingstown, Warwick, East Providence and Woonsocket. She also serves on a statewide commission with state Sens. John Tassoni of Smithfield and Beatrice Lanzi of Cranston which visits schools and is planning legislation to upgrade existing anti-bullying laws.
“Its focus will be on cyberbullying. It’s getting to younger and younger kids, and in high school it’s gotten out of control,” Caron said.
Eldredge Principal Domenic Giusti said the program starts in fourth grade at his school, with follow-up activities each year.
“It fits their grade level, and you can see material changes for the kids who see it in multiple years,” he said.
Students are asked directly if they’ve seen bullying at school, and if so, where.
From about 50 respondents to student and family surveys, about 30 to 35 students have reported witnessing bullying, he said.
“We discovered from our data that the majority of the bullying is happening on the bus, so we’ll get the bus company (Ocean State Bus) involved,” said Giusti.
The problems aren’t necessarily the fault of the bus company, but may require an adjustment in how monitors handle the situation, he said.
“The monitors are usually up front, but there’s 20 rows on a bus,” he said.
The strongest component of the program, said Giusti, is the “homework” assignment: a two-sided page students are required to complete along with their families about bullying they’ve been involved in or have witnessed.
“We use this data and see where it leads us. The parents having to respond gets them to sit down with kids and talk about it. It’s a great conversation starter,” he said.
Bob Houghtaling, town substance abuse cooordinator and one of the organizers of a recent statewide antibullying program at the University of Rhode Island’s Alton Jones Campus in West Greenwich, has helped bring TalkWorks to East Greenwich schools.
“It’s a highly effective interactive program that gives kids the skills and opportunity to talk about bullying. It allows the kid who’s a bully time to turn around his behavior while also helping the victim,” he said.
Caron started her program using actors from Looking Glass Theater to assist students in roleplaying. Wendy Feller, Nicole Maynard and Peter Deffert are TalkWorks’ current acting company.
Much of the program’s funding, said Caron, comes from the Cranston-based Carol A. Peterson Foundation.
“She just took a chance with us,” Caron said of her initiative’s benefactor, whose donations allow to charge schools only 20 of the materials and fees needed to put on a program.
The program’s greatest benefit, she said, has been increasing the level of involvement among parents.
“Parents tell me, ‘You opened lines of communication. We never knew this was going on,’ “ Caron said.