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Middle Schoolers Learn How To Be “Upstanders”

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By Claire Walla

“The world is a dangerous place because of the people who stand by the side and do nothing.”

This sentiment — a quote attributed to Albert Einstein – was part of a student presentation shown to Sag Harbor School Board members at a meeting last Wednesday, November 2.

Its message — a call to action — represents the crux of the issue highlighted “The Middle School Tolerance and Anti-Bullying Conference,” a workshop 20 Pierson middle schoolers attended last Wednesday, October 26 at the tail end of Red Ribbon Week.

The event, which was put on by the Holocaust Center in Commack, brought together approximately 200 students from across Long Island, and it placed an emphasis on those aspects of the bullying cycle that extend beyond merely the bully himself and his victim.

Pierson students Casey Grubb, Alex Kamper, Isabelle Peters and Ariana Moustakas — all members of the middle school student council or class representatives — attended this year’s conference — the first Pierson has participated in. And they spoke about it before the school board last week.

“I want to be an upstander,” said Peters, a seventh-grader.

An “upstander,” she clarified, is a student who makes an effort to step in when someone else is being bullied. She said she didn’t want to “just watch kids get bullied, but do something about it.” Her classmates nodded in agreement and declared they too would set out to be upstanders.

Middle School Assistant Principal Barbara Bekermus said she wanted student council members to attend the conference as part of their training in student leadership.

“I felt like student council should really be the leaders and the role models for the school,” she explained.

And until this point, she continued, Pierson’s student council hadn’t been a very large fixture on campus.

“Even though we had leaders in name, they didn’t really fill that role,” she said.

According to teacher Eileen Caulfield — the advisor for the middle school student government and student chaperoned at the workshop — the conference had a positive impact on the students. And perhaps the aspect that made the most impact was the fact they were able to listen to stories told by other students. In addition to describing tales of bullying, four teenage speakers told personal stories that touched on issues like depression, homosexuality and the suicide of a loved one.

“That was hard for them, to listen to these kids who went through these experiences but were able to get to the other side — better,” Caulfield said.

But she said it inspired the group to think of the culture at Pierson Middle School differently.

“When our kids mixed with the other 200 [students], they had to come up with ways for how they could go back to our school and try to prevent this from happening,” said Caulfield.

The students now meet regularly on Fridays with Caulfield during their academic support period and — since October’s conference — they have discussed anti-bullying and tolerance-based measures that can be put in place at Pierson.

The middle school will soon have a “bully box,” where students will be able to place anonymous reports about inappropriate behavior they might witness on campus. Bekermus said one student even organized a “P.S. I Love You” day amongst her friends. The idea was inspired by a speaker at the conference who created the event at her school in memory of her father, who committed suicide.

Bekermus continued to say that the biggest takeaway from the conference is in encouraging bystanders to be “upstanders.”

“Ninety percent of the power lies in the people who are watching it happen,” she noted.

Her hope is that those who attended the conference, those already in positions of student leadership, will take this message to heart.