Wednesday, February 24 is Pink Shirt Day. It’s a day when people around the country are asked to wear something pink in an effort to raise awareness about bullying. In Monterey County, bullying affects one out of 5 students in some schools.
KAZU's Doug McKnight recently spoke with the bullying prevention program manager for the local non-profit Harmony at Home, Frances Weesner. She prefers to be called Pinkie but not because of Pink Shirt Day.
"I wear pink almost all the time," Pinkie said. "And in the work that I do with children, Miss Pinkie seems to be a lot easier than Mrs. Weesner.”
As you can tell, Pinkie cares a lot about the children she works with and helps them navigate the social pressures of growing up. She says Pink Shirt Day began 14 years ago in Canada when a ninth grader wore a pink shirt to the first day of high school. A number of his classmates ridiculed him and his shirt. Pinkie explained what happened next.
Pinkie Weesner (PW): Two of the seniors, two of the 12th grade boys either witnessed it or heard about it and they thought, well, that's just wrong. So they pooled some of their own money. They went to their local dollar store. They picked up about 50 pink t-shirts.
They got on their computers and on their social media and said, don't do this for us. Do this for the kid who got razzed because we all need to support this person wearing pink, there's nothing wrong with that. And they just got a hold of as many people as they could and invited everybody to wear pink. The second day of school, the very next day, out of a thousand students, 800 kids showed up at school in pink.
Doug McKnight (DM): So how do you define bullying and how is it distinguished from somebody who's just, say, angry?
PW: Yea, I typically don't refer to people as bullies or victims. I typically say "the person who is exhibiting bullying behavior" and "the person who's being targeted" because human beings rarely ever have one particular role. In some circumstances, you're in a position of power. In other circumstances, you're not in a position of power. So, if we label people as bullies and victims, then we kind of relegate them to one particular facet of themselves when there may be multiple facets.
DM: Is there a certain age in which bullying occurs or does it occur throughout a person's life?
PW: What we find when we statistically survey students and schools, the highest rates of incidents of bullying are in third grade and they drop down consistently over time from third grade to high school with some small peaks in middle school. The highest rates of incidents are for third graders, which usually surprises people
DM: I'm surprised by the young age as well. Have you spotted a reason why that is?
PW: I haven't done any peer reviewed research, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it has a lot to do with the fact that at third grade they're becoming much more verbal than they were in kinder, first and second and a lot more social, but they don't yet have the life experience to manage it very well.
DM: The last year has been online, so most students have not had personal contact. Have you noticed or have there been any reports of differences in how students reacted online as opposed to in class?
PW: This year, when we surveyed the students, we saw some interesting changes. In the previous two years, students reported that bullying was happening consistently to about 14, 15 percent of the students two to three times a month or more. This year, when we surveyed, it was four percent.
DM: Wow. So it's gone down.
PW: Yes, they also... they've gone up slightly in reporting empathy for each other. They've gone up significantly in reporting that they would step in for another person
DM: So for all of the difficulties about online learning, at least in this one area, it's been an improvement.
PW: Yeah. We have like 15 or 16 schools that we currently actively survey and we've only surveyed one so far. The rest are all due to (be surveyed) in the spring. But this one particular school (showed those results) and I think it ties in very directly to the fact that they've been doing weekly bullying prevention lessons consistently since the beginning of the school year.
DM: Is there a way for parents to spot it or teachers or others?
PW: It's largely about being alert. Bullying occurs most often where the ratio of adults to children is low. Really about maybe as much as 70 or 80 percent of bullying happens when grown ups aren't around. But we can watch the patterns of students. If you see anything, take time, step in and say stop. That's not OK with me.
Pinkie Weesner is the Bullying Prevention Program Manager for the local non-profit Harmony at Home. She will be wearing pink for Pink Shirt Day on February 24.