Last week, my stomach dropped as I read the headline about a school shooting in Chardon, Ohio. The tragedy, which killed three students and injured two more, has once again generated conversations about bullying. Pundits rushed to judge and characterize the situation as yet another example of bullying in America. It was later determined the accused shooter, T.J. Lane, did not suffer from the type of bullying reminiscent of other tragedies. The media dropped their indignant calls for a national conversation on bullying and focused their attention on Rush Limbaugh.
However, I still feel there is an underlying connection between the Chardon shooting and other bully-fueled violence tragedies. No, Lane may not have been bullied into isolation like so many that turned to violence, but he was undeniably isolated. Schools can be microcosms of society's broader issues. We, as adults, can't perpetuate hostility and separation in our politics, our workplaces and social circles and then be shocked when a heightened version occurs in our child's school. What's different though is many adolescents lack the perspective and self-worth that comes with age. A single event or just the natural acrimony that lives in academic institutions can be too much for a child to endure whose singular focus is to belong.
This defeating isolation is on full display in the highly anticipated Lee Hirsch documentary, Bully. The real life school scenes was just given an "R" rating from the MPAA, eliminating the possibility for The Weinstein Company's planned middle and high school viewing tour. The documentary calls for a societal shift towards acceptance. You can view the Bully trailer here.
Interestingly enough, studies show bullying perpetrators and their victims usually suffer from the same feelings of loneliness. In fact, sometimes victims of bullying become bullies themselves as a means of exorcising their anger or diverting attention as the target.
There is no quick fix to tackle the bullying problem because the causes are too inherent to our society. As depicted in Bully, we need youth to have paradigm shift and create a value system in them that acknowledges every person matters. Although inclusion is often at ends with adolescents' natural psychology and social politics, we need to create programs that spark this awareness. It must be exemplified to students that a classmate's life is as much a contribution to this world as their own. Unfortunately, individual isolation can be so corrosive that many youth don't recognize their own worth and contribution.
The Sparkle Effect, a DoGooder Spotlight, is a great example of a program that can be used as a model to foster inclusion in schools and teaches all of us the real life lesson: We all want to matter and be included. The Sparkle Effect is the brainchild of 18-year-old Sarah Cronk. She grew up watching her older brother Charlie struggle to make friends due to his autism spectrum disability. It wasn't until the popular swim team captain invited Charlie to sit at his lunch table that things began to turn around for him. He encouraged Charlie to join the team, and Sarah watched her brother's confidence grow overnight. This self-assurance provided a foundation that helped him navigate the sometimes-turbulent waters of high school.
Sarah wanted to have the same impact as Charlie's friend and offer other kids an opportunity to feel included. In 2008, Fifteen-year-old Cronk created and coached the nation's first inclusive cheerleading squad, which involved special needs students, at her Iowa high school. A year later, Cronk established the nonprofit The Sparkle Effect to provide cheerleaders across the country with the tools to promote inclusion within their own squads.
The Sparkle Effect website offers a downloadable "Quick-Start" kit for squads across the country to implement a similar program. The kit includes a sample letter to administrators to introduce the program and garner leadership support. The nonprofit has even formed corporate partnerships to provide free uniforms for the disabled cheerleaders. To date, The Sparkle Effect has generated 50 inclusive teams across the United States and even one in South Africa.
The real life lesson that Sarah has taught me is how a small amount of empathy can powerfully influence an individual and a school community. The film trailer for Bully shows how pervasive bullying has become in America during these modern times. Previously, kids would be able to escape taunting at home and regroup mentally to face the cruelty. However, social media outlets, like Facebook and Twitter, allow bullying to be constant and relentless. For these reasons, Sarah's lesson of inclusion is more important now than ever before. A program like The Sparkle Effect not only shows victims that they matter, but fosters empathy in all youth, which is the most powerful way to combat school bullying before it's too late.