The Epidemic of Silence: How We Can End It

May 21 2012


Lee Hirsch’s movie “Bully” is a powerful and moving documentary that shines a big light on the issue of bullying and the tragic consequences that can occur when intolerance goes unchallenged.

While the film was painful to watch at times, I left the theatre feeling more inspired than discouraged. The hope I experienced is related to the work we are doing at Community Matters to wake up the courage of young people and adults to speak up when they experience intolerance and injustice in their midst.

We know that we cannot legislate civility nor can we punish children into being more tolerant. The only viable solution to the spread of the bullying virus is to change the social norms that allow it to occur.

Here’s what we know: in more than 85% of bullying situations, there are witnesses. However, more often than not the witnesses or bystanders do not say or do anything. The effect of their silence is “deafening”, because silence is a form of consent. It emboldens the bully who perceives the silence of others as permission and tacit approval of their actions.

Dr. Stuart Twemlow, respected author and bullying expert recommends bystander education as the most effective strategy available to schools today. And that’s exactly what we do with our Safe School Ambassadors program. This school year alone, we have worked with more than 200 schools across the U.S., equipping 1000’s of students and adults with the skills to raise their voices and effectively speak up when they encounter a bullying incident.

In school after school, the data we collect demonstrates that the actions of Safe School Ambassadors make a real difference. When Ambassadors speak up, they interrupt, de-escalate and often stop incidents from escalating and becoming offenses. We hear from many administrators that their school climate and culture is greatly improved and the number of fights, suspensions and other negative behaviors are reduced significantly.

Young people are powerful, but often adults don’t recognize their capacity to be peacemakers and change agents. Seeing a young person who has been “awakened” and is choosing to speak up is both inspiring and hopeful. I’m reminded of the power of youth by this quote from Desmond Tutu; “Young people are uniquely equipped to change the world because they dream. They choose not to accept what is, but to imagine what might be.”

I remain grateful that so many of you support our efforts in “waking up the courage” of young people to stand up and speak up and be the change we wish them to be.

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