Story by Taylor Larson
Photo courtesy of Laura Plumb
Middle school is the typical stomping grounds for your average bully. We’ve all been there: your hair is too short, you answered one too many questions in class or you said, “Hi,” to the wrong boy at lunch. It happens everywhere, even in Des Moines, which was Forbes’ number one place to raise a family in 2011.
“A Bully-Free 515,” an anti-bullying program piloted by a group of Drake University students proudly named Blue Solutions, is looking to change that. The group is currently partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of Central Iowa. The group presents to middle school students at the McComb Boys and Girls Club every Monday.
“The stories these students shared with us in the first half-hour were amazing,” Blue Solutions team member Laura Plumb said. “They opened up and shared very personal stories about the horrific things that have happened to each of them.”
The group will be promoting its anti-bullying tactics to middle school students throughout the month of February.
“Our goal is to promote the idea of being a community of upstanders, a term none of the students had heard before,” Plumb said about the group’s message.
The term upstander comes from Dan Olweus’s research, which many school districts use to define bullying. Olweus describes bullying as being exposed to negative actions from one or more students in repeat occurrences over time. The Des Moines Public School District uses this definition, and adds that verbal and social bullying is another huge element of the problem.
“These students realized the importance of standing up for themselves and others to stop bullying,” said Kayla Day, sophomore and Blue Solutions team member. “They caught onto the definition quickly and could share examples of when friends stood up for them.”
“Being an upstander means standing up to bullies and telling them to stop. It means supporting your friends or your enemies,” said Gwen Baumgardner, another Blue Solutions team member and junior. “You don’t have to be someone’s friend to stand up for them.”
“What really amazed me was the influence of social media on the spread of bullying. It isn’t just happening at school anymore, it’s everywhere these students go. Facebook hate-pages and mean text messages and tweets seemed the norm for this group,” Plumb said. “It is even more important to have someone who stands up for you now.”
The group also plans to meet with education majors on Drake’s campus to spread the word about bullying, its affects on middle school students and what it means to be an “upstander.”
Social media has also played a big role in their outreach.
“We’ve already reached 900 people in the first week,” Day, a third team member, of the ‘Bully-Free 515’ Facebook Page, said. “Our @bullyfree515 Twitter handle is generating buzz, too. We’re hoping to grow our fan base to 515 likes and follows by the end of the month, though.”
“This Monday we’ll be Instagraming in a photobooth with the McComb kids,” Plumb said. “They’re crazy about Instagram, so we’re going to try to get #bullyfree515 or #upstander trending while we’re there.”
“A Bully-Free 515” will be entered into the Public Relations Student Society of America’s Bateman Competition at the end of February, but the team hopes that Boys and Girls Club will continue to implement their program.
“The smiles on the kids’ faces is what we’re really after,” Day said. “Their stories are sad, and it makes us feel good to be able to make them smile for an hour.”