Catholic schools refuse to cower to bullies

| November 3, 2010 | 7 Comments

Bullying: Aggressive behavior that is intentional (not accidental or done in fun) and that involves an imbalance of power or strength. Often, bullying is repeated over time. Bullying can take many forms, such as hitting or punching, teasing or name-calling, intimidation through gestures, social exclusion, and sending insulting messages or pictures by mobile phone or using the Internet (also known as cyberbullying). Source:

The horrors of bullying came alive for Jodee Blanco in the 1970s, when she became a victim in the fifth grade. It turned nasty two years later, when a group of students became her tormentors.

“These kids in the back of the bus used to dip spitballs in Elmer’s glue and throw them at me,” she said of her seventh-grade year. “At least three days a week, my hair would be so caked in glue, my grandmother had to cut chunks of it off.”

That same year, she once was pinned to the ground during winter by three boys. Then, two girls forced her jaw open and others started pushing snow down her throat. Still others crammed snow underneath her clothing and onto her bare skin.

As the gruesome details flowed freely from her tongue, hundreds of students packed into the fieldhouse at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul Oct. 27 leaned forward in their seats. Blanco was invited to deliver a message to help students understand the effects of bullying — and to work against it.

While recounting the winter episode, Blanco paused, looked at her audience and said, “What do you think they were doing the whole time? Laughing.”

“Eventually, I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “Mo­ments later, my mom found me shivering under the bushes.”

She told the principal the next day, and the students were punished. But, she said, “that only made things worse.”

Helping students, parents

School faculty members heard Blanco speak at the National Catholic Educational Association annual convention last April in Minneapolis. Laurie Jenn­rich, associate principal at Cretin-Derham Hall, was attending the conference and wanted to hear Blanco, but she was not able to get into the overcrowded room where Blanco was speaking.

As a member of CDH’s climate committee formed last fall to cultivate an attitude of respect among students, Jennrich was greatly interested in what Blanco had to say.

Six months later, Jennrich finally got that chance at CDH. Blanco gave three presentations at the school. She did the same thing at the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield in September.

At CDH, Blanco addressed the students, gave a workshop for faculty and conducted a family seminar in which parents were invited to come and hear her story and, most important, learn how to recognize and respond to their children’s experiences of being bullied.

After hearing Blanco’s talk, Jennrich was asked to offer her reaction. She replied, “Am I allowed to cry? When she said what [cruel things] people say is like taking a razor and taking a slice out of your self-esteem, that really resonated with me. I have worked in high schools for over 30 years, and I think about my own past, and then all the students because teenagers can be cruel.”

Blanco wrote a book about her experiences titled “Please Stop Laughing at Me” in 2003. Since the book was published and became a New York Times best seller, she has toured the country talking at schools and trying to help victims of bullying.

Studies show that between 15 and 25 percent of American students are bullied with some frequency, according to the website, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration.

Blanco found a captive audience at Cretin-Derham Hall, holding students’ attention for an hour and a half and hugging dozens of them after receiving a standing ovation at the end of her presentation. Also attending were 17 students from Totino-Grace High School and its director of diversity, Coach Nakumbe.

‘Bullied mercilessly’

Dressed in all black, Blanco stood alone on the floor of the school’s field house, with bleachers full of students on each side. She roamed the floor freely and even bounced up and down both sets of bleachers while giving raw, riveting and revealing details about the torment she endured at the hands of several bullies.

“I was bullied mercilessly from fifth grade through high school,” said Blanco, who attended numerous schools in both Chicago and New York City and even in Europe before graduating from Carl Sandburg High School in New York in 1982.

“I’m the only survivor-turned-activist who’s working deep inside the trenches of the school system to generate change,” she said.

Her list of bullying episodes is long. The torment continued all the way to her last day of high school. Like all of her classmates, she was asking people to sign her yearbook. There was a popular boy name Tyler that she — and most others — thought was cool. He had been nice to her on occasion, so she worked up the courage to ask him to sign her yearbook, hoping to end her high school days on a good note.

She handed him the book, and he agreed to sign it, taking a permanent marker and writing a message. Her excitement turned to horror when she got the book back and saw what Tyler had written: “(Expletive) you, (expletive). Every­body hates you and always will. You are God’s worst mistake.”

One boy in the class saw the message and got tears in his eyes. Later, he saw her at a class reunion and, eventually, married her. He was one of the only people in the entire class who was nice to her during high school. And, such kindness is the antidote for bullying, Blanco said.

Making a difference

Speaker and anti-bullying activist Jodee Blanco, right, hugs Cretin-Derham Hall junior Gabrielle Bruhjell after Blanco’s talk to students at the school Oct. 27. Awaiting their turn to greet Blanco are ninth-grader Sally Nguyen, left, and senior Rory Scherer. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Treating herself like she’s still one of the many lonely, isolated kids at schools across the country, Blanco asked this challenging question to her audience: “What would it take for one of you to invite one of us to go to the mall with you or sit with you at lunch? Why is that such a big deal? You keep treating us like we’re invisible, we don’t exist, we’re ghosts.”

At least one student heard that part of her message loud and clear. Senior Bryan Linehan said it was one valuable lesson he learned from the presentation.

“I was really shocked when she said that bullying is the nice things you don’t do,” he said. “I don’t think of myself as a bad person, but there’s got to be times when someone needed a compliment and I just didn’t give it to them. I just think it’s a difficult challenge. We do need to be better rescuers of outcasts in our school.”

Jennrich said that, while Cretin-Derham Hall may not have instances of bullying like Blanco experienced, it’s still an issue that needs to be addressed. That’s why the climate committee was formed, and it’s also why she works so hard to have activities available for all students. In fact, she oversees all school activities except athletics.

“If it’ll help kids feel connected, we’ll do it,” she said. “We have kids who want to do fencing, we’ll have a fencing club. We have kids who want to play bridge, we have a bridge club that meets every Monday. Anything kids want. We’ve had jump rope club. . . . We’ve had ping pong club.

“I think it helps them feel like they belong. It’s an opportunity to be part of something. . . . And, if there’s something we don’t have for them, we’re going to do our best to keep it going for them.”

These efforts appear to be working at Cretin-Derham Hall. At least one student who was bullied in grade school has not had any trouble in high school. Senior Chelsea Terhark-Luger was teased when she transferred to a new school in sixth grade after moving to Minnesota from South Carolina.

“I switched schools halfway through sixth grade and I was bullied when I got to my new school,” she said. “It was bad. I came from a different state and I had an accent because I came from South Carolina. They bullied me because I had an accent. I just switched schools after sixth grade.”

About her high school years at CDH, she simply says, “It’s fine for me.”

It helps that some high-profile students have set a good example. Back when Minnesota Twins star Joe Mauer attended the school (he graduated in 2001), Jennrich said he invited a blind student to sit at his table regularly for lunch. Mauer would cut his food for him.

Small gestures matter

Jennrich, Blanco and other anti-bullying advocates say this type of action is all it takes to turn the tide against bullying, which, sadly, has become an epidemic in the United States and has regularly garnered newspaper headlines, beginning with the Columbine shootings 11 years ago and continuing today.

Some victims harm others, some harm themselves. But, students, including those present at Blanco’s talk, can prevent the violence associated with bullying.

In fact, Blanco saved that message for the end of her talk, when she asked everyone in the field house, students and faculty alike, to close their eyes and imagine the worst harm a bully ever did to them.

“Exactly how you felt at that worst moment is exactly how that person feels who you never think to include,” she said. “I want you to go up to that person, look them in the eye and say, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ That tiny gesture of human kindness could change that person’s whole life, and could save yours.”

Six points on bullying

» There’s more to bullying than acts of meanness. “Bullying isn’t just the mean things you do, it’s all the nice things you never do,” Blanco said. “Bullying is also when you never go out of your way to include someone.” She went on to say that it’s the feeling of isolation and loneliness that often drives victims to commit violence — against others or themselves.

» One effective way to help a bullying victim is to reach out to them and include them in your social plans. For example, invite them to sit with you at lunch or to go to the shopping mall. According to Blanco, such simple acts make a difference.

» If you are being bullied, report it to an adult you trust. Much more so than when Blanco was in high school, adults, especially school teachers, counselors and administrators, are more aware of bullying and, in many cases, have received training in how to handle it. Cretin-Derham Hall High School, for example, has a section in its school handbook about it, and students are encouraged to come forward if they are bullied.

» Victims are encouraged to find activities they like that will help them make new friends. They also are encouraged to do so outside of school so they can develop a social network away from school.

» If you witness bullying, Blanco advises creating a diversion that will put a stop to the episode. She recommends bursting on to the scene and asking the victim for help with a problem, or telling the victim he or she is wanted in the school office. That’s more effective, she says, than just stepping in and asking the bullies to stop. Then, after you have gotten the victim away from the bullies, be sure to invite him or her to hang out with you.

» Parents need to be watchful of what their children are doing on their computers. Laurie Jennrich, associate principal at Cretin-Derham Hall, said bullying can happen via the Internet. “It’s all gone cyberspace,” she said. “I call it finger courage. They [bullies] get a lot of finger courage when they’re on their computer. The sad thing is, [the effect] is permanent.” — Dave Hrbacek

Want to hear more?

Buy it Now

Those interested in learning more about Jodee Blanco’s story can read her book, “Please Stop Laughing at Me,” which was published in 2003. She also has written a sequel entitled “Please Stop Laughing at Us” (2008). To find out more about the books and Blanco’s background and anti-bullying efforts, visit


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