If your memory of past news cycles can go back five years or so, you might recall when the issue of bullying hit its peak as a news item. The 2010 death of Tyler Clementi, Dan Savage’s founding of the It Gets Better project, and the passage of anti-bullying legislation in Massachusetts, New York, Missouri, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Hawaii all occurred within the span of a year, and at a time when stories on cyberbullying and teen suicide were already routine.
In response, school districts across the country put new policies and prevention tactics in place, creating opportunities for theatres and other outside groups to provide anti-bullying training. It was around this time that my own company, New York City Children’s Theater (formerly Making Books Sing), developed our anti-bullying performance and workshop Alice’s Story. The issue had so captured public imagination that in 2012, TIME for Kids put Alice’s Story on the cover of their October issue.
Since then, the link between theatre and bullying prevention has remained fertile ground for creative collaboration. Many state anti-bullying policies include a “Training and Preventative Education” component, a need arts organizations are uniquely qualified to fill. A study by JAMA Pediatrics has demonstrated that anti-bullying policies reduce the incidence of bullying in schools, and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services includes theatre-based activities in its recommendations of how to put those policies in action.
TYA/USA, the national organization for theatres for young audiences, created the Young Playwrights for Change competition, encouraging middle school students to write original plays about bullying. But how much progress have schools and theatre groups made since bullying became such a big news item, and what will the future of anti-bullying programming look like as other issues take center stage in the public eye?
At the very least, increased media coverage seems to have brought bullying to the attention of more schools, communities, and arts organizations. “There’s more language for it now, so there are things kids know to say that they wouldn’t have said in the past, and I think parents are more aware of it,” says Lois Olshan, arts coordinator of PS144Q, a long-time school partner of New York City Children’s Theater and early Alice’s Story audience.
Diana Feldman has seen a similar increase in bullying awareness as president and CEO of enACT, a nonprofit that uses interactive theatre techniques to help at-risk youth. “I’ve seen schools come up with interventions and reporting protocols,” she says. “Obviously, Facebook now has some reporting protocols. So I feel like things have been put in place over the past few years that weren’t there before.”
Although sometimes it can seem that this added emphasis on bullying can distort the issue. Emily Freeman, community engagement director of Orlando Repertory Theatre, points out that her theatre’s SAAFE (Social Awareness Arts for Empowerment) Project, a partnership with ArtReach Orlando that uses the visual, written, and dramatic arts to explore identity and community with middle schoolers, specifically does not use the “b-word.”
“I think the word’s become overused,” she explains. “We see a lot of young people finding themselves falling into this script around what bullying is and how they see it operating in their schools, instead of looking at the cause of some of the behaviors. This program is all about self-empowerment and developing a safe space for students to connect and explore a variety of topics. Using the b-word can simplify the issue, as opposed to finding some of the complicated ways identity, socioeconomic status, gender, and race connect to create behavior that we would classify as bullying.”
Olshan has some of the same reservations about the word. “Sometimes a lot of things get lumped into it so that a kid identifies as being bullied who isn’t necessarily being bullied,” she sasys. “If you over use a word enough it starts to lose the exact, important meaning that it should have. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not an issue.”
In instances of these individuals programs, there are measurable results that indicate the success of each respective program. ENACT has just completed a five-year research study re-affirming the effectiveness of its programming. “We’re really good at talking about difficult issues because we are counseling based, but we use actors to deliver the programs so we get a window into kid’s lives in a very deep way,” Feldman says. “We really have a pulse on what’s on their minds.”
Olshan notes the benefits she’s observed by bringing theatre-based, anti-bullying programming into her school. “Having actors interact with kids is the effective way to do it,” she says. “The strategies stick with people. It’s better to have that kind of experience than to just talk at kids or read a book about bullying. I think teachers who experience it know the benefit of theatre and how it can elevate the information and our responses.”
Despite these successes, making long-term changes to a school or community culture remains a challenge. Freeman observes how the school environment can influence the way students behave. “We have to navigate how the schools themselves address the ways in which young people treat each other,” she says. “We try to set up really clear expectations about how we treat each other in the space, and we hope that some of those guidelines and expectations will make their way into the school community too.” While Alice’s Story generated real discussion and results for the students and teachers at PS144, Olshan admits that not every student gets to see it. “For a variety of reasons, you have to take a break or switch up your programming sometimes,” she explains. “Our fourth graders saw it when they were in second grade, but the kids who are in the third grade now haven’t seen it.”
As new issues in education become bigger talking points (testing, autism), some arts organizations may be moved to shift the focus of their programming to accommodate new school needs. But educators and program directors who do this work know that the need for anti-bullying initiatives hasn’t gone away. “There’s always a new trend, but I don’t think a day goes by when the issue of bullying doesn’t come up as an obstacle to kids functioning in schools and in their lives,” says Feldman. “The core of what enACT does is working with kids to overcome obstacles which prevent them from functioning in school and life, so all of these terrible things that intervene with their success fall within our mission.” Freeman’s programming is fully covered by grants, reflecting the value that funders still place on these types of projects. “This is a program where we are seeking out community partners first and working with them to develop original programs,” she says. “People are always saying ‘Yes,’ which is great.”
Bullying is not a new problem, and will probably always manifest whenever people with diverse identities, experiences, and values come together in groups. But increased awareness of bullying and student interaction can make schools and arts organizations better equipped to help kids navigate social situations and conflict. Bullying may not have as much visibility in the media as it did in the past, but fortunately, there are still committed teachers, administrators, and arts educators who are working to create positive and supportive school environments.
Emma Halpern is the co-artistic director of New York City Children’s Theater.