|State Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle spoke at the conference; here, she stands with the members of the leadership task force who organized it.|
For the last two years, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly has sponsored conferences highlighting issues of particular concern to teens. One of those issues is bullying.
Still, said Sara Sideman, JCC director of teen services, “We learned from our high school students that bullying doesn’t start in high school. It starts much younger.” As a result, on March 1 the organization held a similar program for middle-schoolers.
“We know that it’s unlikely to stop all bullying,” she said. “But if it changes one kid’s behavior, it’s a success. We wanted to foster leadership as young as possible.” Sideman has co-facilitated each of the conferences with Ryan Mion, the health educator at Bergen Family Center.
Last year’s high school conference – drawing some 450 students – was “unbelievably successful,” she said. In fact, organizers were so pleased with it that they brought in four middle-schoolers to discuss how the issues tackled at that meeting might apply to them.
“They gave us their thoughts,” Sideman said. “One thing that really spoke to them was bullying.”
Once they decided to host an event for middle-schoolers, organizers reached out to community schools, both public and private. Among those that responded were Moriah, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, Yavneh Academy, Tenafly Middle School, the Elisabeth Morrow School, and the Dwight-Englewood School.
Each school designated several students to serve on a youth leadership council. It was those students – seventh- and eighth-graders – who planned the conference.
“While the adults had to do a lot of the legwork, [students] planned the content, picked the speakers, and chose topics for the breakout sessions,” Sideman said. “This was youth-led.”
Some 170 students attended the middle-school conference, which featured anti-bullying advocate Krysten Moore as the keynote speaker. After her presentation, students had an opportunity to direct questions to a four-member panel – including people who had been bullied – and later to participate in breakout sessions on cyberbullying, the emotional effects of bullying, and bullying intervention.
“There were great conversations and lots of questions asked,” Sideman said. “The students wanted to understand what bullying stems from.”
The organizer said each of the participants said that they had witnessed bullying.
“It’s impossible not to,” she said. “At that age, you must see some kind of bullying. But they’re really interested in finding ways to make it stop.”
According to Sideman, the conference served not only to raise awareness of the issue but to provide resources that the students can bring back to their schools.
“They want to do something tangible, such as organize an anti-bullying club or a ‘day without hate,'” she said. “We’ll be following up with all the schools to see if anything has been accomplished since the conference.” She noted that the conclave will become an annual event.
Sideman said “the kids asked lots of questions to understand why people choose to pick on certain people.” They were surprised to learn that the keynote speaker, Moore – whom she called “stunningly beautiful” – had been bullied at school. Moore, 23, the national youth ambassador for Stomp Out Bullying, also founded the anti-bullying campus group Shine and is the winner of several beauty pageants.
“It was good for the kids to hear that someone like that got bullied,” Sideman said. “It doesn’t just happen to those who are weaker. It can happen to anyone.”
“I feel like they were excited and that they felt they could make some sort of difference,” she said, adding that in working with teens every day, she inevitably sees some bullying.
Still, she said, the JCC tries everything it can to counter this behavior – for example, requiring that participants in teen travel camps sign an anti-bullying pledge.
“We don’t take it lightly,” she said. “We discuss the issue and try to make [anti-bullying] a universal thing. We want the kids to feel that the JCC is a safe space.”
Eighth-grade Moriah student Samantha (Sammi) Maza, a member of the youth council, said she had to write a short essay about her leadership qualities in order to be considered for the position. Maza, who also is active at the JCC, said her school named five members to the council.
The eighth-grader said she was impressed with the keynote speaker.
“She spoke about being bullied,” she said. “But she stayed true to herself and grew from it. She gave us advice on how to lead, and how to stomp it out.”
Maza noted that during their planning meetings, middle-schoolers on the council proposed and discussed ideas for sessions, breaking into groups to plan each part of the program. Students learned from one another, she said, pointing out that a council member from Tenafly had begun an “upstanders club” at her school.
“I was really inspired,” she said, noting that two months ago the Moriah contingent brought the idea of an “upstanders revolution” back to school, asking all students to take an anti-bullying pledge.
Maza said she has seen bullying and noted that “with boys it’s more physical, while girls exclude you, don’t invite you to things.” The conference, she said, taught you “how to deal with it; if you see it, how to stop it.”
Moore said the goal of her talk “was to empower the students and show them the power of their choices. I wanted to … teach them that every action has a consequence, be it good or bad,” she said. “But more importantly, I focused on how each and every one of them could be a hero and make a difference in this world.”
The students were “fabulous, extremely engaged in the entire day,” Moore continued. “They were not only responsive but extremely motivated to make a difference and end bullying.” She added that “bullying is no longer a rite of passage for children or teenagers. It has become an epidemic that merits our immediate attention.”
Moore said that conferences such as the JCC event “absolutely make a difference.
“Time and time again I have had students come up to me and tell me the impact my stories have left on them. I have seen students transform before my eyes into great leaders and advocates against bullying. If we focus on the positives and educate our youth, they will be better equipped to fight bullying.”