Not Just Kid’s Play: Bullying Threatens Health, Heart, Mind

By Sheryl Harmer
Dr. Sheryl Harmer directs curriculum development at Committee for Children in Seattle. Dr. Harmer is an international authority on the subject of bullying prevention. She spoke with Barbara Ficarra on September 8.

Not Just Kid’s Play: Bullying Threatens Health, Heart, Mind

Over 160,000 children a day. That’s the number of absences it’s estimated occur in American classrooms because of fears about bullying. Most of these kids won’t tell parents or teachers how frightened they are. Very often they complain of stomachaches and headaches, or other physical problems that are difficult for adults to verify.

One of those students was Adrianna Sgarlata of Arlington, Virginia. The fifth-grader had just started a new school and her tormentors rode the same school bus. Day after day they spit food or gum in her hair, laughed at her clothes, or otherwise humiliated and embarrassed a once confident and vivacious girl.

These painful incidents all took place off the school grounds. But the effects were devastating, and they lingered. Lunches were especially painful. Adrianna ate crouched in a corner so as not to draw attention. Not surprisingly, Adrianna increasingly sought ways to avoid going to class, mostly by insisting she was ill. Joseph Sgarlata, her dad, remembers growing frustrated and impatient.

In the middle of the sixth grade Adrianna awoke to incapacitating pain. Neither she nor her parents were aware of the fact, but her appendix was about to burst; left untreated, the condition could be fatal. Initially her cries fell on deaf ears. Fortunately, however, Adrianna’s parents did ultimately seek medical help. The close call brought all of their daughter’s bus experiences into the open. As a family the Sgarlatas sought to prevent what happened to their child from happening to anyone else.

In fact, Adrianna, who is now Virginia’s representative in the 2007 Miss America pageant, worked tirelessly and successfully to help secure passage of antibullying laws in her Virginia. Over one-half of US states have similar antibullying legislation.

Sadly, very few stories about bullying end the way Adrianna’s did. The more prevalent picture is one of emotional distress, poor academic performance, and alienation. At its most tragic, bullying can result in suicide by a child who feels desperate and hopeless.

At Committee for Children in Seattle, Washington, we believe every child deserves to learn in a classroom free from fear. We are a group of 80 educators and researchers dedicated to achieving just that.

For almost 30 years we have been developing, monitoring, and refining programs geared toward preventing bullying. Second Step and Steps to Respect are now used in 21 countries at 25,000 schools; these nations include Norway, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Research tells us it is possible to decrease incidences of child-on-child violence with such programs and to create schools with fewer behavioral incidents. Not that we can reasonably expect kids to shoulder the burden of this cultural shift alone. It is important these respectful behaviors be part of what the entire school community observes: teachers, staff, students and parents should follow the same guidelines about safe practices.

It would be short-sighted to see respectful communication and classroom safety as short-term benefits. We at CfC–together with our international partners–believe these skills underlie our success or failure as families, businesses, and even democracies. Recently Second Step was invited into Kurdistan. As our fellow educators reminded us, children in tumultuous regions need help detecting and defusing aggressive behavior as any others would. This work, conducted in skeletal settings and dire conditions, takes place simultaneously with other important missions such as gender equality and public health.

Safe children thriving in a peaceful world. That’s the vision that guides us at Committee for Children. We invite you to learn more at

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