Shawn Clark, current principal of Jackson School in Batavia and soon-to-be principal of Batavia High School, got bullied Thursday night. Teachers and students ganged up on him, as parents looked on, in a church no less.
The sham was a demonstration called a "bullying circle," used to help educate people about how bullying tends to work in a school environment.
Clark spoke to the community at Batavia's First Presbyterian Church about a new district-wide anti-bullying initiative.
According to Clark, the district is using the popular Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, which has more than 30 years of research behind it.
The vast majority of students who make up that "middle ground" -- that is, those who are neither bullies nor bullied -- is a key focus of the program.
"Most kids want to (help the victims)," Clark said, "but they don't know how."
It is very important, Clark said, for teachers and students to know how and when to respond to incidents of bullying.
"Research shows that when no action is taken, empathy goes down over time."
People then think that either bullying is no big deal or it's the victim's fault, and the problem gets worse.
This program, he said, educates kids and adults on what they can do to help stop bullying in its tracks.
At Jackson, a group of staff have formed a committee called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports to help build a positive, comfortable and friendly environment where every student can feel safe and welcome.
Once per week, the committee facilitates classroom discussions wherein kids can engage in face-to-face interactions with each other and discuss what's going on in their lives. They can talk about anything from problems at home to what they did on vacation.
"The point is to cultivate a family environment where the kids can feel safe talking about issues," Clark said.
Another function of these discussions, according to Clark, is to encourage an atmosphere of empathy. In talking about this, he made a distinction between sympathy, which is a feeling, and empathy, which is a "learned skill."
"Sometimes if the kids who are bullying know what's going on in the victims' lives, then they'll see them as human beings who deserve respect."
When asked if he has seen a difference as a result of these types of intervention, Clark replied: "Absolutely."
"The kids feel much more comfortable coming to adults and talking to them about their issues (including those that can be symptoms of, or precursors to, bullying)," he said. "And when we get the kids to work things out, the problems tend to be so much more minor than if we had let them go. (This way) we can take care of them before they escalate into something more serious."
The district's bullying prevention initiative has had its critics, though. Clark said that some people have suggested to him that what staff members really should be doing is "toughening kids up" so that they can fend for themselves.
According to Clark, it's not that easy.
"Research shows that kids who are bullied are so traumatized by it that they can't help themselves," he said.
Bullying can cause problems in kids' lives that make it very hard for them to stick up for themselves. The trauma resulting from bullying can lead to psychological disorders like anxiety and depression, and can even cause physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea and trouble sleeping.
Problems like these can, in turn, lead to frequent absence from school, which negatively impacts the student's overall academic performance.
Another challenge is the stigma attached to "snitching," or telling on a bully. But Clark maintains that there is a huge difference between "tattling," which means telling on others because you want to get them in trouble, and "informing," which is a way of keeping people safe.
"I never understood the (anti-snitching) mindset," Clark said. "It's okay to ignore the situation when someone is being bullied, but it's wrong to tell an adult about it?"
For Clark, this is all about rights.
"Do the kids at our school have the right to come to school and get an education without having to be afraid? I think the answer is yes."
But the concerns surrounding the reality of bullying don't just apply to the victims. Clark also talked about the risks bullies themselves face.
"(Bullying) can be a sign of a behavioral disorder that can escalate," he said. "Kids who bully are four times as likely to be convicted of crimes (by their 20s). They are also four times as likely to join gangs."
He speaks from experience, having formerly taught at an elementary school in inner-city Rochester. One of his former students has since joined a gang, and was recently killed.
As far as what people can do to reach out to kids who bully, Clark warned against the temptation to assume that they are outcasts who need a boost in self-confidence.
"The bullies might be the most popular kids in school," he said. "Many times, a lack of self-confidence is not the problem -- they have too much self-confidence."
These kids tend to have good leadership abilities, but they use those skills in a negative way.
Principal Clark appealed to citizens to do their part to help eradicate this scourge of mistreating others.
"If you have sons, daughters, nieces, nephews or friends in the Batavia schools," he said, "just talk to them about bullying. The more people talk about it, the better. The more information we can get out there, the better."
In addressing parents, Clark pointed out the role modern technology -- which he called the "new playground" -- has in the whole bullying phenomenon.
"It's so much harder for kids to escape bullying now than ever," he said.
Whereas bullying used to be more or less confined to the schools, now bullies can reach their victims through computers, cell phones, etc. Even at home, over the weekend, and on vacations, someone can make comments about a schoolmate on Facebook or send him/her a harassing text message.
"Parents should monitor what their kids are doing," Clark said. "The kids are not necessarily doing anything wrong, but someone else might be doing wrong to them."
Clark noted the very positive, caring environment at Jackson Schooland and its great group of students, teachers and staff.
There are more than 400 kids at Jackson, and Clark knows them all by name.
Clark's talk was part of a free spaghetti dinner hosted by Peaceful Genesee, a coalition of local community members and organizations dedicated to fostering nonviolence as a way of life in Genesee County.
Photos taken by Steve Ognibene