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Teen-produced radio show documents effects of bullying

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When Council Brandon was in fifth grade, she found herself cornered into a bathroom stall by the ‘mean girls’ of her school, who told her she wasn’t pretty and needed a makeover.

Council, 14, who lives in Hartford, Conn., said the torment didn’t stop - and she ended up skipping to sixth grade in hopes the older kids would be nicer.

They weren’t.

“I wasn’t afraid to show my knowledge in school, and I was not afraid to grow as a learner – they weren’t used to that,” Council said of her middle school peers. “Also, I was the only (Caucasian) person in my grade, so I wasn’t interested in the same music they were, or the same pop culture they were used to.”

Council’s experiences are not unique, which is why she decided to become involved in – and co-host – the radio show “Bullied: Teen Stories From Generation PRX.”

The show was created by Generation PRX and produced by WNPR, Connecticut Public Radio. A grant from the Motorola Mobility Foundation helped with funding.

Jake Shapiro, CEO of PRX, an online distribution marketplace for public radio programs, said when he saw the topic of bullying emerging into the media, he knew his organization was in a position to make sure these young people’s voices were heard.

Generation PRX is an initiative of the company aimed at connecting youth radio with radio programs. The initiative has tackled important issues affecting young adults all over the country, such as immigration and high school dropouts.

“Bullied” is being featured on several different radio stations across the country, and it can be found streaming online here at www.prx.org

A nationally conducted study found that approximately 30 percent of students are involved in bullying  - as either the bully, the victim or both.

However, bullying often goes unreported, said Jennifer Hartstein, a child and adolescent psychologist with a private practice in New York City.

Hartstein, who is not involved in the radio show, said in the past, bullying typically occurred at school – but with today’s technology, bullying has expanded to social networks and YouTube, so students don’t feel safe in their own homes.

“Bullying occurs in a much more public forum now, promoting the conversation,” Hartstein said. “Unfortunately, people think that it is a ‘rite of passage’ of childhood.”

Bullying has lead to a few highly-publicized cases of tragedy. Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old high school student from Massachusetts, committed suicide in January 2010 after enduring verbal attacks from several of her classmates. Eden Wormer, a 14-year-old student from Vancouver, Wash., killed herself Wednesday after relentless bullying.

Council, along with her co-host, 17-year-old Peython Echelson-Russell, worked with producers to evaluate dozens of story pitches sent from teens around the country, writing the scripts, interviewing experts and telling stories.

“I think what’s exciting about it is that it gives the young people a direct channel for expression around this critical topic, as opposed to being mediated through adults,” Shapiro said. “We think it’s important in the mix to have a direct channel and voice – it’s very powerful when done through audio in storytelling.”

One of the show’s vignettes was produced by Iris SanGiovanni, a 17-year-old junior at South Portland High School in Portland, Maine.

Iris, who regularly participates in Blunt Youth Radio, came up with the idea of “Psychology of a Bully” because she wondered how a bully was different from a ‘normal’ person.

“At any point in our lives, we’ve all been a bully – so what sets us apart from someone who does this habitually?” Iris wondered.

Iris admitted when she was younger, she was cruel to a boy in elementary school – for no real reason – and that got her thinking: Why did she do that to him? What made her stop? She wanted to answer those questions.  

Iris interviewed Cynthia Erdley, a professor of psychology at the University of Maine at Orono, who said bullies often act out to elevate their social status.

Erdley also said a bully’s behavior is often reinforced – especially because bystanders don’t say or do anything to stop the bad behavior.

“It can even be ignoring what the bully is doing and letting it happen – that gives the bully power,” Erdley said.

Iris also spoke to Alice, a former bully from Casco Bay High School in Maine, whose last name has been withheld for privacy reasons.

In the vignette, Alice speaks of kicking a girl out of her clique and then pulling the girl’s pants down around her ankles in front of everyone.

Alice explains she did this because as a newcomer to America, she had felt targeted, and she also didn’t have the happiest home.

“Many of the outcomes of the victims are similar to those of bullies,” Erdley said. “Bullies are not happy people; they have lower self-esteem.”

Other vignettes in the show include an interview with a ninth-grader whose classmates repeatedly called him “Osama,” a Swedish teenager who talked about her bullying issues, and an Alaskan middle schooler who looked at whether anti-bullying initiatives in schools actually work.

Hartstein said she believes bullies do have the ability to change their behavior “in meaningful ways.”

“The first step, as with all things, is being aware of the behavior, learning why you engage in it and deciding to change it,” she said. “Everyone can learn to do this, including children and teens. It’s important to get them to start examining their behaviors and learning how to be kinder and more compassionate. The earlier we can work on this, the better it will be down the road.”