Bullying can make life unbearable for children, and the consequences for victims can last long after school is done. Children who bully or are bullied can plunge into a lifelong cycle of destructive behavior, including substance abuse, self-harm, domestic violence and sexual assault.
The West Georgia Rape Crisis Center (WGRCC) is working to stop that cycle of violence.
“We have to address those behaviors before they become something even more negative,” said Jan Gibbs, WGRCC’s executive director.
The center works with schools in Carroll, Coweta, Haralson and Heard Counties to implement “Talk about Touching,” a program that gets kids, parents and teachers in on the conversation about bullying and child sexual abuse.
Hollie Presnal, a prevention education coordinator at the center, travels throughout the four counties talking to children from elementary school to high school about body safety awareness, which includes sexual abuse and also overall harm or violence, including bullying.
The idea, Presnal said, is to make children aware of what kinds of behaviors are inappropriate so they can protect themselves, but also so they can identify red-flag bullying behaviors in others and intervene to stop them when they can.
“We want them to take ownership of their behavior and the behaviors that they tolerate in others,” Presnal said. “We try to teach them the part they play to make this a healthier and safer place.”
In recent years, bullying has been spotlighted as a significant problem for children in the U.S. and in Georgia. According to the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, about 42 percent of middle school children reported being bullied on school property.
WGRCC has been talking to children about body safety for many years. But about seven years ago, the staff decided they wanted to do more than single school presentations every year. They wanted lessons about bullying and other harms to be backed up by some of children’s biggest influencers: parents and teachers.
“We want them [children] to see they have a support system outside our particular program,” Presnal said.
With funds from the Rape Prevention Education grant from the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, WGRCC launched a community anti-bullying campaign. Along with leading children through 12 sessions of the program each year, Presnal conducts training and workshops with adults to talk about risk factors, bullying behaviors and bystander intervention. Some teachers integrate lessons about bullying into their classroom curriculum. A growing group of parents and school counselors now act as champions for promoting bullying prevention strategies in the community.
The program has won praise from parents, schools and community groups in west Georgia. The center’s program in schools has led to five anti-bullying and bystander intervention campaigns implemented by the community.
Eleanor Landman, a school counselor at Ithica Elementary School in Villa Rica, Ga., said the school is fortunate to have Presnal present the “Talk about Touching” program to their students in kindergarten, second and fifth grades.
“I truly believe the program will continue to have an impact on students long after their participation,” she said.
Gibbs and Presnal said their next goal is to engage even more parents and to expand the program to even more schools and community centers.
“We’ve worked hard to saturate our community with these lessons, but we’re always hoping to do more,” Gibbs said. “If we can reach these children early in life, we hope to prevent a lot of troubling, harmful behaviors as they grow older.”