As a psychologist, a licensed specialist in school psychology, and as autism coordinator for a public school district, I have spent twenty-four years working with children and families, the last seventeen of them specifically with children who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Because these children do not blend in easily, they are often targeted by bullies; because they have difficulty regulating their emotional responses, they “reward” the bully by blowing up and saying inappropriate things that get them into trouble. Some examples I have heard include, “I’ll kill you!”, “I’ll blow up this school and everyone in it!”, “I know how to destroy you!”, “I’m going to pick up this chair and smash you! For these children, it is a way to express the intensity of their anger. For school staff, it is an incendiary statement which can result in severe disciplinary penalties.
Children with ASD are truth-tellers, and the truth is: they are struggling to make friends, to express themselves, to do well, just like any other child. However, they must do it in the context of interpreting social language and behavior that is not always friendly. The Stand by Me program came from my desire to create a support system for these students.
Students define bullying differently from adults. They appear to describe bullying in more intense terms than we would, even under the same set of circumstances. They see and experience its impact in a way adults do not. Incidents that do not rise to the level requiring disciplinary action by administrators still take their toll on children. Until now, administrators have not had effective ways to deal with them. Stand By Me trains students how to safely support victims while ignoring the bully, but it also gives teachers and administrators important information about where and when bullying is occurring.
Stand By Me data has shown that the process can be simple. When students know what to do, they act. And the program is student-led, so when problems arise, the students solve them. Their solutions are usually much better than mine. They continue, as always, to put adults to shame. As one student put it when asked what he could bring to the program:
"The courage in words; the following of actions; to teach; to be, not what people think of you, but to be a leader, not a follower."
—Hasheem, 5th grade
It is, in effect, an anti-bullying club whose membership is inclusive rather than exclusive. The data gathered in the initial pilot phase suggest that teaching students what to do when they see bullying occur results in a powerful support system school-wide. Victims feel supported, bystanders feel empowered, and bullies want to join.
Students are trained to:
They learn how to approach and assist the victim, creating an immediate support system for targets of bullying.
Students also learn when not to intervene, but to alert an adult instead.
In both instances students record the incident, its time and location, and their response. Data is regularly given to administrators so that staff can be assigned to “hot spots” on campus.
The program is simple, effective, and easy to train.
— Half-day training for the faculty sponsor, who then serves as on-site trainer for students and staff.
— Half-hour training for faculty and staff.
— One-hour training for students.
The program is designed to be student-driven and student-led, under supervision of a faculty sponsor. The program appeals to a wide cross-section of the student body, including both general and special education students.
Students record data because students see bullying happen. Many bullying incidents in schools do not become office referrals. Our data suggest that once students are trained, there is an impressive frequency of helping interventions. During the four years of the pilot program. Stand by Me members intervened over 4000 times.
Stand By Me is a program that combats bullying by teaching bystanders how to help victims. It was started in Terrell, TX, in 2007. Christine Cohen has written a book on this topic for AAPC Publishing which is scheduled for publication in 2017.