Be an ‘upstander’ in the face of bullying

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It was 1982 and I was with a few other girls talking with one of our high school teachers at school. During the conversation one of the girls was mimicking Marie, another girl in the class. Marie was not with us at this time but there were other times when she was in the classroom and girls mocked her. Actually, Marie didn’t seem to have many friends. I recall vividly this teacher’s response, “Don’t make fun of her; you have no idea what other people are dealing with.”

We were all 11th graders in an all-girls Catholic High School. I recall feeling ashamed that I was part of a group which had to be corrected but I am grateful to have had an experience like this which still has an influence on me. This teacher made a point to remind us what it means to have empathy, to not judge what we don’t understand, and she modeled how to stand up for someone when another person is being put down.

One year later, my friend and I had the opportunity to give Marie rides home from school and we were fortunate to get to know her a little better. To this day, I do not know what struggles and pain she was having to endure, but I do know that someone stood up to defend her when she was being treated “less than.” By this teacher modeling for us a greater sense of empathy and compassion, she was also raising us up to be better young Catholic women and the type of people Christ calls us to be.

The behavior against Marie was disrespectful, demeaning and went beyond teasing. Many if not all of us can recall an experience growing up where we witnessed mean, harassing, embarrassing or intimidating behavior where another person was treated poorly or was excluded with either the implicit or explicit intention to make them look of feel inferior to others. I am sure all of us have also experienced and witnessed these type of situations as adults. These types of behaviors are a form of bullying. Bullying is an important topic for all children and adults to discuss and work towards prevention as my teacher did.

During August and September of 2018, the Office of Catholic Schools offered an inservice for all teachers and a pastoral day for all faith formation leaders on bullying. Respect and dignity of all people is a core teaching of our faith and an important topic which is central to the Archdiocesan Safe Environment Training for children. Specifically the topic of “bullying” is emphasized in the seventh grade “Circle of Grace” course material for all youth in faith formation and our Catholic schools.

From that inservice presentation by Carolynn Greene, a training specialist with the State of Alaska’s Division of Juvenile Justice, I found myself focusing on the roles that people play in bullying situations.

There is much to be shared about what causes a person to behave as a bully and the implications of that behavior on others but I would like to focus on the role of the bystander.

An article from the website, stopbullying.gov, “Bystanders to Bullying,” describes how a bystander can become an “upstander.” The article explains, “an upstander is someone who sees what happens and intervenes, interrupts or speaks up to stop the bullying.” Without an “upstander” the person who is bullied often feels “even more alone because there are witnesses who do nothing.” This gives the impression and feeling that others do not care or that they agree with what is happening. Reasons why someone may not speak out are because of fear of retaliation, becoming a target or “negative social consequences.” But the article goes on to explain the positive impact of an “upstander” to the person who is being bullied. “When youth who are bullied are defended and supported by their peers, they are less anxious and depressed … When bystanders become “upstanders” it not only helps the targets of bullying, but shows other bystanders how to take action to prevent or address bullying.”

My teacher was an “upstander.” She spoke up against the behavior that was demeaning another person and provided young people with a better understanding of the plight of another person, reminded and challenged us to be better Catholics and spoke up against the evil of targeting and demeaning a child of God.

A new school year is a good opportunity for us to recall types of bullying behavior such as acts of harassment, dehumanization, insult, apathy, dominance and injury. I encourage everyone to learn more about the dynamics and impact of bullying and think about what role we each can play in being an upstander. In today’s world, both adults and young people are called by our faith to be “upstanders” in all aspects of our lives, especially in our homes, schools, parishes, work places and communities.

The writer is the director of the Anchorage Archdiocese’s Office of Safe Environment.


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