East Tennessee non-profits help schools battle bullying

East Tennessee non-profits help schools battle bullying

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By ERICA ESTEP
6 News Education Reporter

SEVIERVILLE (WATE) - East Tennessee non-profit groups are stepping up to provide bullying prevention programs in schools.

Bullying is no longer just a school problem, and experts say schools need lots of help dealing with the damaging and long lasting effects it can have on children. 

Van Wolfe, executive director of non-profit Safe Space, said, "You know suicide rates are going up for children, for teenagers. We can do something about this!"

That's one reason Wolfe said Safe Space, which usually deals with domestic violence and abuse in the home, started educating middle school students about those issues and about bullying more than a decade ago.

The Sevierville-based non-profit recently expanded the program to fourth graders. It serves kids in Sevier, Cocke and Jefferson counties.

"Kids will talk. They'll tell you what's going on. They're very honest," Wolfe said. "You give them the setting, they're going to open up and tell you the things that, what we hear from teachers, is not talked about other than through this program."

6 News was invited to Sevierville Middle School to see Safe Space education specialist Carmel Day at work. After watching a video outlining why people bully, and offering ways to handle it, she talked with a group of sixth graders about their experiences.

Day asked, "Where does bullying take place?" A chorus of students chimed, "hallways, the bus, at lunch, during recess."

She walked the students walk through bullying scenarios, talking about how they would deal with each one. "They (bullies) will say things like, you're so stupid. Then they'll say, just kidding," she told the students. "Was that a just kidding?" The class of students answered in unison, "No!"

The students also learn when they should speak up to help others. "If by staying silent somebody is going to get hurt, then you should talk," Day told them.

On this particular day even the trainer got a surprise when a reformed bully came clean. The sixth grade boy raised his hand and said, "I used to be a bully, but I would go for the little ones, like make fun of the little kid that was smaller than me."

"I'm glad you stopped," Day said. She also offered some positive reinforcement. "It's very rare to have a former bully actually admit to having been a bully, and that is wonderful."

At the end of each program, students in the three counties Safe Space serves filled out questionnaires. They were asked specific questions about bullying and abuse, and offered a chance to tell something important. Some of what they wrote is disturbing, like the fourth grader who wrote, "I wish I was dead."

"About a third of these surveys are coming back with kids talking about that they're being bullied, talking about that they're being abused in their homes, talking about their low self esteem, and how they don't want to live, and how they have no one to talk to," Wolfe said. "It's just heart wrenching to realize these are 12-year-olds, 10-year-olds, 8-year-olds, who are already feeling this kind of thing about life."

Safe Space uses that information to take action, working with school counselors to help kids in need and following up several times throughout the year.

Safe Space is just one of many non-profit groups with anti-bullying programs. K-Town Youth Empowerment Network, Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, the Community Mediation Center in Knoxville and Child & Family Tennessee are some others.

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