The Cathedral High School Anti-Bullying Program Is Empowering Teens to Stand Up for Everyone
Writer & Photographer: Lynda Hedberg Thies
There is a growing bullying epidemic and it is impacting millions of people each and every day. The majority of bullying occurs at school, outside on school grounds, during recess, after school, in school locker rooms and on practice fields. As a result of TV and news organizations reporting about some of the most egregious stories the public is well aware of the problem but at a loss for how to address it. The challenge is not awareness now, it is actually helping the public take action by understanding the issue and by involving teens in the solution.
The issue is complex, wide-spread and buried under old ideas that “boys will be boys” or “that kids need to grow a thicker skin” or that teasing is simply a normal part of childhood. The problem then is not then just following and liking a social media post against bullying, it is getting everyone on the same page about the definition of bullying.
The definition of bullying is about an imbalance of power and abusing that power with physical strength, access to embarrassing information or popularity to control or harm others.
Cathedral High School launched an anti-bullying program over a decade ago incorporating student-trained leaders called PROJECT I.R.I.S.H. The acronym stands for Instilling Respect in Stopping Harassment. The goal was multi-faceted, identify the depth of the problem, help students own the issue and invite them to share the message in the community. Project Irish evolved, like many programs, as a result of the bullying that Brent Lee received while he was enrolled in the school. Leading the charge was Kim Graham Lee, Brent’s mother who recognized early on the complexity of bridging the gap between intolerance and actual consequence.
Kim reflects on the two and a half year commitment she made to develop the program.
“There wasn’t a national spotlight on bullying like there is today,” Lee says. “So, I worked with a dedicated team of staff, teachers and outside advisors to do something about it. It is inspiring to see that this program is not only continuing but thriving and making a difference in the lives of so many.”
In December of 2017, the student leaders of PROJECT I.R.I.S.H., Cathedral High School’s anti-bullying student-run organization hosted a retreat for area junior high students. Cathedral students are trained to go out to area junior high schools and give presentations to discuss the topic of bullying and offer support and awareness to inspire change. The December anti-bullying retreat was the largest so far and the result of the school and the students’ dedication to the mission of the program.
On this day, Brent was invited back as the keynote speaker. This was a full-circle moment and one that Brent embraced, returning to the campus as a successful corporate executive ready to empower the room full of junior high students why this mission was important to him. Brent wanted to share with the student leaders and attendees why their work was so important and what he hoped they would get from the retreat.
“The details of what happened to me are unimportant now, but what is more important for each of you to know is that this problem happens to a lot of people but believe me when I say, it will not last forever,” Brent said at the retreat. He knows how important it is to have support and to share this message, inviting the participants to take the information they learn back to their schools to share the information to help change the culture.
Brent shared that he was blessed to have the support of family, especially his mother, Kim, to support him during this time. Unfortunately, many victims of bullies do not have someone to tell and an overwhelming amount, upwards of 64 percent, never report it. This can lead to isolation, anxiety, depression and have tragic long-term or permanent consequences.
No one knows that better than a parent whose child is being bullied. Kim, a former executive with Walker, a global marketing research firm immediately began the process by gathering information about the student population. Her research helped her to discover that when she asked if anyone had been bullied that the number of students that checked the box was quite low. It wasn’t until she described specific bullying behaviors that she was able to learn the magnitude of how many students had been affected by bullying and why it was so important to have the students become educated.
Now 13 years later, the Interim CEO of Integrating Woman Leaders (IWL) Foundation, Kim is committed to helping companies integrate the information she has learned from dealing with this issue. In her corporate work, she has had both women and men asking what they can do.
Progress is being made, but this is only a drop in the bucket. What will be required to create lasting change is a consistent education campaign that will define what bullying behaviors are to empower everyone from becoming a victim. Information is essential but movement is critical to achieve long-term change. More grassroots school programs need to take place.
Both Brent and Kim agree that students just need to be safe when they are at school. But in the future, how we as a society respond to all this heightened awareness will determine whether this becomes a brief popular social media campaign or inspires a true revolution for change. But for change to happen it begins with each of us.
Visit StopBullying.gov for information from various government agencies on what bullying is, what cyberbullying is, who is at risk and how you can prevent and respond to bullying.