Child Cruelty Is Vexing Issue for Educators

By CHRIS BURRELL

When a social worker from Maine came to the Island last month for the second time in less than two years, he sat down with teenagers, listened to their worries and feelings and walked away with a disturbing impression: Vineyard kids, especially middle schoolers, are living in a world dominated by teasing and bullying.

"There was a lot of emotional pain in that group," said Stephen Andrew of Portland, Me., who met with sixth, seventh and eighth graders from three Island schools during his three-day visit. "There is an incredible amount of bullying and teasing. One boy said, ‘You either have to get away from it or be it. The best thing to do is be the bully.' "

The issue isn't new, and it isn't an Island phenomenon, but after a string of anti-Semitic incidents in November and December at the West Tisbury School, teachers, counselors and school administrators on the Vineyard acknowledge the problem carries serious implications.

"Nationally, something like 136,000 kids a day don't go to school because of bullying and teasing and not feeling safe," said Oak Bluffs guidance counselor Bill Jones.

To Mr. Andrew, the pervasiveness of such behavior also creates fertile ground for high rates of alcohol and drug use among teens, a persistent problem on the Vineyard. "It sets up a whole series of dynamics," he said. "If you're different, you're going to get teased and that sets up peer pressure."

Faced with this "gauntlet of cruelty," Mr. Andrew said, teenagers suffer. "Those who get a lot [of teasing] get isolated. Friends don't hang out with them, because they'll get it, too," he said.

Such an intense climate, he added, erodes young people's ability to make independent decisions, especially around substance use and sexuality.

One of the confounding facets of bullying and teasing is that much of it happens below the radar of adults. "We miss so much of it, even as vigilant as we are," said Mr. Jones.

And the consequences can catch adults completely off-guard. "It's always been there," added Mr. Jones, "But there's a heightened awareness since Columbine and some of the other incidents. We are much more aware of it now."

With the new awareness, examples of bullying, teasing and racism are not hard to find. Members of the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center who responded to the anti-Jewish incidents in West Tisbury were quick to acknowledge that the problem runs much deeper, affecting the growing population of Brazilian immigrants on the Island and other newcomers.

"There's some prejudice in the bullying and the teasing in the community," said Mr. Andrew, who said that one Brazilian high school student shared with him how painful it was to encounter anti-Brazilian sentiment on the Vineyard.

Viviane Ramos, an 18-year-old senior at the regional high school, said she still hears racist comments directed against Brazilians, even among peers she considers her friends.

"My friends say things and then say, ‘Oh, no offense to you,' but how is that not supposed to be offensive to me?" she said. "It took me a while to stand up to it. I didn't want my friends to think I wasn't like them."

And as much as Miss Ramos tries to deflect the impact of such comments, they still hurt. "I don't care what they say, but it still plays in your head, that same comment over and over again," she said. "It makes you scared to talk to new people and wonder what they're thinking in the back of their heads, are they like that?"

Miss Ramos, who has lived on the Vineyard for most of the last six years, said she also experiences a reverse form of racism and teasing from other Brazilians who resent that many of her friends are Americans and accuse her of rejecting her own people.

Teasing and bullying are evident in other areas. Guidance counselors said girls can be especially cruel both at the middle school and high school levels, the conflicts and cruel words usually erupting around friendships.

Mr. Jones called it a "major issue" among seventh and eighth graders. John Fiorito, guidance counselor at the high school, said upper class girls will pick on younger ones in an effort to teach them their place in the social pecking order. Threats to spread rumors about a girl's reputation are not uncommon, he added.

Some of the teasing behavior is rooted in Island culture. Both Mr. Andrew and high school principal Peg Regan noted that newcomers to the Vineyard often face a harsh orientation.

"You come from off-Island to the Island and regardless of your background or race, it's a real adjustment here. There's definitely an Islander versus off-Islander culture here that's a little more fluid in other communities," said Mrs. Regan.

Others said the economic gaps on the Island are not only fodder for teasing and disparaging comments, but also fuel some of the stress that might underlie the behavior in the first place.

"There's the issue of the haves and have-nots, people having to work two jobs to make ends meet, to pay for their housing," said Mr. Andrew. "All those things. Kids are left alone, and it increases anxiety."

Indeed, Mr. Andrew and others cited several aspects of Island life that could exacerbate bullying and teasing. Along with the housing and economic struggles faced by many Islanders, there is also the influx of immigrants.

"The diverse nature of the community is changing," said Mr. Andrew.

According to Heidi Spruce, a counselor who works with teenagers at Island Counseling Center at Martha's Vineyard Community Services, said one of her clients views the Brazilians as taking over the Vineyard's limited supply of jobs and housing.

"He feels very affected by the Brazilians. He's a 16-year-old boy from an Island family who's saying, ‘Wait a minute, they're taking away job opportunities, and we can't live here anymore,'" she said.

Both Mr. Andrew and Joy Robinson-Lynch, a counselor specializing in adolescent issues, see the growth of the Island as a significant factor increasing stress and contributing to prejudice.

The Island is no longer as homogeneous as it once was and is more divergent socioeconomically, said Ms. Robinson-Lynch. Growth and change, she said, have expanded tensions.

West Tisbury police chief Beth Toomey, a close observer of Island behavior around alcohol and drugs, took note of the irony that bullying is a significant problem on the Vineyard.

"We're on an Island that celebrates being different and being a little on the edge," she said, "and we have schools where if you act differently, you get jumped on. But if someone doesn't like what you're doing in the adult community, that happens as well."

Chief Toomey, Mrs. Regan and Mr. Andrew all pointed to the issue of bullying as a community problem, a behavior that is sometimes modeled by adults in the public sphere and then reflected in the younger generation.

They cite the brittle and often angry political discourse of the past couple years, arguments over a proposed golf club, the Steamship Authority or the hospital that play out in auditoriums across the Island and on the front pages of newspapers.

There is no simple solution, but schools are tackling the problem, hiring specialists to train teachers, adopting programs and curriculum materials and forming committees and parent meetings aimed squarely at reducing the incidences of teasing and bullying.

A parent group at the West Tisbury School has been meeting monthly since October to deal with what happens at recess. Mr. Jones said one approach taken at the Oak Bluffs School attempts to empower kids and turn passive bystanders into teenagers who will stand up to bullying and say, "No, this isn't okay."

Mr. Andrew said many of the students at the regional high school favor the idea of a peer-led response. One of the biggest challenges is getting students to speak up about what's really happening to them. Taylor Ives, a high school senior, said such initiatives would meet with more success than going to adults in the school system.

"We were looking at ways to get kids to speak more openly about issues they've had to deal with," he said. "With peer groups, you're less inhibited, not afraid to say what you feel."

At the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School, teacher Jonah Maidoff said the school weaves tolerance into the history curriculum, teaching students the tragic connections between bullying, prejudice and racism.

Still, the temptation is to downplay teasing, viewing it as an adolescent rite of passage. But Mr. Andrew warned that teasing and bullying have kept pace with the increasing stresses of modern life.

"Maybe it's so painful that adults don't want to think about it, and it's hard to have empathy," said Mr. Andrew. "And yes, we've been teasing and bullying for years, but as the anxiety of our lives goes up, it becomes more pronounced, it gets more hurtful and we lose the compassion and sense of people. And it's more pronounced on the Island as you become more diversified."