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Speaker uses past as a victim of bullying to fight cycle of abuse

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
September 17, 2010
— The cool kids made Jodee Blanco’s life hell from fifth grade through high school.

But she got over it.


Not.


Despite a successful career in public relations working for movie and rock stars, she was rocked to her roots by reports of the killings in 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado.


That event revived her pain and led her to write a book about being a bullying victim. The book led to a career of talking to students and parents about what they should do about it.


Along the way, she attended her high school reunion and became friends with her former tormentors.


But the demons created in her youth still are with her. She has occasional anxiety attacks so bad that she will pull out her checkbook to remind herself that this is 2010, not 1990. Or she’ll call one of those former-bullies-now-friends just to be reassured: “I’m cool, right? You guys love me now, right?”


On Thursday, she brought her one-woman show to St. John Vianney School in Janesville.


Blanco said she found herself feeling sympathy for Columbine’s student killers as she learned their classmates had tormented them for being different.


She felt that way, she told the students, even though what they did was a horrible sin.


She felt sympathy because one day in middle school she put a kitchen knife in her school bag, bent on revenge.


Her mother spotted the knife and took her to see doctors, but classmates continued to torment her. And adults kept asking her what was wrong with her, rather than asking what was wrong with the bullies.


“My life was a living nightmare,” she told the fifth-through-eighth graders.


Kids told her she was ugly. They spit in her food. They launched so many glue-covered spitballs at her on bus rides home that her grandmother had to cut hunks from her hair.


Blanco acted out some of those scenes in front of the students, including the day in high school when classmates told her to leave their lunch table.


She went from table to table, begging to be allowed to sit down. She received only scorn. She ended up sobbing on the bathroom floor.


In another incident, kids took her first pair of high heels, her pride and joy, and dropped them in a toilet bowl filled with urine.


The act came with a note: “Everybody hates you.”


Blanco would go home, turn her music up loud and scream into her pillow until her throat bled. Then she would show her mother and suggest it was strep throat, hoping to stay home from school.


Those kids thought they were only joking, Blanco said. They didn’t see it as a big deal.


It was a big deal, Blanco said, because she will be damaged for the rest of her life.


Blanco pleaded with the students not to be the bullies and not to be the bystanders who laugh because they’re afraid not to.


Even the act of excluding a classmate from parties or homework sessions can cause lifelong damage, Blanco said.


“Bullying isn’t just the mean things you do to each other. It’s all the nice things you never do,” she said.


“It is all bullying!” Blanco said, her voice rising with passion, “and you are damaging each other for life!”


Blanco had a message for any student who had ever felt bullied: “There is nothing wrong with you, and there never has been. … Your classmates simply haven’t caught up to you yet. But don’t change for anyone.”


Some eighth-graders said afterward they found the presentation overly dramatic, but they said their classmates were talking about it.


Their school doesn’t have bullying, but there may be some excluding going on, the students said.


“I’m happy we had this,” because it was great preparation for high school, said Ali Pierson.


“And it’s good for us to hear these things now, before anything like this happens to anyone,” added Sierra Rhodes.


“If you’re different for any reason, the chances of you being singled out are profound,” Blanco said after the talk.


“The bully and the victim both are bleeding,” she said. “Both need love and compassion. I don’t think the victim should punch the bully’s lights out because that bully is in just as much pain as the victim. They’re just taking something out on the victim.”


Bullying advice

Bullying expert Jodee Blanco gave an assignment to students at St. John Vianney School on Thursday.


She challenged them to commit to making a difference within the next 24 hours.


She asked them to approach someone they had never been nice to, look them in the eye and say, “Hi, how’s it going?”


“That tiny gesture could change that person’s life, and it could change yours,” Blanco said.


She also laid out some practical advice.


Tips for parents

Instead of focusing on school officials or parents of the bullies, a parent’s first actions should be to help their child, Blanco said.


The most important thing is to find an interim social group, perhaps in a nearby town, where the child can interact with children who don’t attend the same school. Clubs, library activities, dance or karate lessons are possibilities.


Having a positive social life will restore the confidence that bullies have torn down, she said.


Strategies for kids

Blanco said victims always should tell an adult they can trust if they’re being bullied.


She advised kids to stand up to bullies, but nonviolently and only at the moment the abuse is happening.


“Seeking revenge is the mistake,” she said.


Practice at home, she said. Show no fear or any other emotion. Tell them to stop. Stare at them. Then walk away. After three steps, turn and say “see you guys later.”


The bullies will mock you, she said, but after three or four times they will begin to respect you, and if they don’t, the experience of standing up will empower the victim.


Being a rescuer

Blanco showed two ways kids could help if they see someone surrounded by bullies:


For shy kids, she said they should make up an excuse—your mom is in the office and needs to see you—and pull the victim aside.


For confident kids, tell the abusers that what they are doing is wrong and pull the victim away.


In both cases, the rescuer should reach out to the victim right away, inviting her to do homework together that night or to a social gathering, Blanco said.


“It’s easy to hear but probably hard to do,” St. John’s eighth-grader Charles Harker said.



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