Jennie Withers and Phyllis Hendrickson will sign copies of their book from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, October 15, at Barnes & Noble, 1315 N. Milwaukee St, Boise.
The authors also are available to lead workshops on the topic of teen bullying and harassment, in person or via Skype. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
In September 2010, as America was stunned by the story of a gay teen-ager who jumped to his death after being outed on YouTube, Jennie Withers was already months into work on a manuscript for a book on teen harassment.
A year later, Withers and her co-author (and mother) Phyllis Hendrickson have a brand-new book on one of the most timely topics in education. Hey, Back Off! Tips for Stopping Teen Harassment was published in September 2011 by New Horizon Press. In it, the former Idaho Education Association members offer practical ideas and tools for teens who want to stand up to bullies.
Assertiveness is the key. Throughout the book, Withers and Hendrickson emphasize that kids need to stand up for themselves, speak out, make eye contact with their harasser, and use “I” statements, such as “I don’t like what you are doing to me.”
The book is aimed mostly at teens and their parents, but it has plenty of good information for educators to use at work. Its biggest lesson for school employees may be that bullying isn’t their problem to fix.
“Educators have a tendency to want to solve everything and be everything to everyone,” says Withers, who taught 16 years in Kuna and Boise before leaving to write full time. “One of the things I wanted to do with this book was say hey, educators are there for support and they offer great support, but they cannot do this for the kids or the parents.
“Education systems are expected to be everything for kids. We’re taking care of them not only academically but psychologically, socially, economically,” she adds. “Let’s take some burden off of educators. If all of the harassment problem is put on educators, it’s not going to get solved. So teenagers have to have a stake in that and parents have to have a stake in it as well.”
Hendrickson, who was a teacher and counselor for 35 years, most recently at Burley High School, says the book can offer effective “bibliotherapy” to teens and parents. With personality quizzes and goal worksheets for students to complete along with their parents or alone, the book doesn’t preach; it guides and teaches.
Hey, Back Off! offers guidance on methods of harassment ranging from old-school teasing and tormenting to the latest frontiers of cyberbullying. The authors also call out athletic and club hazing and initiations for the harassment they are. Hendrickson says that her husband, a high school administrator, was at a school where hazing was still practiced. He went to the school board to ask for a policy against it, “and parents came in and just had a fit because that’s ‘tradition,’” she recalls. But the policy got written.
Overall, Idaho has good laws allowing school districts to take action against bullies, the authors say. One weak spot statewide is the fact Idaho does not include sexual orientation in its hate-crimes legislation, and that’s a serious matter since teens are especially apt to be harassed over their real or suspected sexual orientation.
Withers notes that teens often have no idea that saying “That’s so gay” or raising bruises on one another through horseplay is harassment. “They’re self centered and believe whatever they’re doing is OK,” she says. Hendrickson adds that if any behavior bothers a teen, “They need to express that they’re uncomfortable with it. Kids would rather endure something that bothers them than to be open about the fact, ‘Hey, I don’t really like that and I don’t want to do that anymore.’”
The authors emphasize that people should take a zero-tolerance attitude toward bullying. “When I was growing up, it was like, ‘oh they’re just a bully, you just have to learn how to deal with them. They’ll make you tough, it’ll be better in the end.’ It was just something you had to endure,” says Withers, who has two school-age daughters. But harassment can quickly escalate, especially in the era of cyberbullying. “Technology plays into bullies’ hands,” Withers adds, which makes it all the more important for students to learn assertiveness skills to stop harassment as soon as it starts.
Withers says it can be difficult for educators and parents to keep up with the new ways teens are terrorizing one another. “But if we create assertive kids, then we don’t need to keep up with the technology,” she says. “If you have an assertive person, they know what they can and can’t do, and they know what crosses the line. They know what their rights are and they know what other people’s rights are. They have a sense of community.”
What about anti-bullying assemblies, brochures, posters, and other outreach efforts? Recalling the high-profile “Rachel’s Promise” campaign from a few years ago, Withers says, “I think we try to use that as a cure and it’s so impersonal. You run a bunch of kids into a gymnasium and you get them all hyped up about this thing. Realistically, they forget about it in a couple of days. We did ‘Rachel’s Promise’ at West Junior High (in Boise), and the biggest bully was the first one to go sign the banner.” But it didn’t change him.
“One of the points I hope we make with the book is there’s not a quick cure. There’s not an assembly. There’s not a poster. There’s not a brochure,” she adds. “It has to start with personalities. It has to start with education. Kids have to know what harassment is.”
In publicity for the book, New Horizon Press presents some shocking statistics, including one from the National Association of School Psychologists reporting that 25 percent of teachers “see no problem with bullying or putdowns and consequently intervene in only 4 percent of bullying incidents.” For those teachers, a mix of positive peer pressure and information can help. Withers says that teachers at her school wound up doing an intervention with a colleague who frequently hauled students into the hall and said cruel things to them. Their action helped, but maybe not as much as another incident Withers describes:
“I heard one kid out in the hallway who said, ‘I don’t like what you’re saying to me. It’s hurtful.’ The teacher didn’t know how to respond to that because he was used to having some kid look at the floor the whole time he is screaming at them, or roll their eyes.”
“Kids need to know they can use these strategies with people of any age,” Withers says. “No matter what age you are, you‘re still a person, you still have rights, and you need to assert those.”
Assertiveness is an important skill to learn while you’re young, she adds, because “all this stuff doesn’t go away when you graduate from high school. It’s easier to make changes and learn how to deal with it now.”
NEA offers help, too
The National Education Association has resources to help educators create bully-free environments in their classrooms and schools. For ideas and tools, see the Bully Free Schools page and take the “Bully Free: It Starts With Me” pledge.