Edgartown School students inspire plays about bullying

Samantha Cassidy, center, portrays what it's like to be a target of group ridicule. Behind her from left are Alley Ellis, Liam Waite, Eva Wilson, and Aaron Wilson. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

A performance about bullying by an Island-wide cast of students captivated Edgartown School students in grades five, six, seven, and eight on Tuesday morning. Not only was the play performed by their peers, but it was also told in their own words.

Last year writer/director Donna Swift of IMP for Kids, an Island theater education organization, asked Edgartown School students in grades five to eight to share their thoughts and experiences with bullying at their school. She used improvisation theater games, discussions and writing prompts with them during health teacher Sue Costello’s classes.

The students’ responses varied widely, from calling bullying “a big problem” to “no big deal.” Ms. Swift culled their writings to create dialogue for a play she created, “Assertions — Students Speak about Bullying.” This week, two IMP for Kids casts, which include 15 students from across the Island, are performing two versions of the play at Edgartown School, one for middle school students and one for elementary students.

Bullying experience

The Tuesday morning performance in the school cafeteria was the culmination of an eight-month process. The audience of about 160 students watched with rapt attention and in respectful silence during the entire 20-minute play. The IMP for Kids cast included students from Edgartown and Oak Bluffs Schools, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), and Falmouth Academy.

Before they began, the cast introduced themselves and shared their experiences.

“I’ve seen the difference between people thinking it’s all fun and games and some people getting hurt from bullying,” Samantha Cassidy of Edgartown School said.

“One time I got bullied, and the only way I could get it to stop was to turn to physical violence,” MVRHS student Aaron Wilson said. “I think there are other better ways to stop bullying.”

“During my middle school years, about three or so of my closest friends were picking on me,” Liam Waite, an Oak Bluffs School graduate who now attends Falmouth Academy, said. “They thought they were having fun, but it really just wasn’t.”

Other cast members included Alexandra Ellis, Clare Boland, and Amy Fligor, MVRHS; Eva Wilson, Oak Bluffs School, and Daniel Gaines, Edgartown School.

Different perspectives

The play began with quotes from Edgartown School students in response to the writing prompt, “I think bullying is…”

Some students’ answers dismissed the notion of bullying outright or questioned the emphasis on the subject.

“I don’t see any bullying at the Edgartown School,” one student said.

“I think bullying is no big deal; it’s a part of growing up,” another stated. “The point is, it’s been around forever, so I don’t see why it has to be a big deal now. Everyone gets bullied sometimes.”

Some of the students’ quotes illustrated the many forms bullying can take, both physical and emotional.

“I could feel my heart ripping into pieces every time someone said something mean,” one girl recalled.

The play also pointed to the differences in students’ opinions about how to define and recognize bullying.

“People get taken down for bullying for stupid small things,” one student said. “I don’t think bullying is a problem, because I’ve never witnessed it, and I don’t think it happens. I don’t think that talking behind people’s backs is bullying.”

“It should be considered bullying any time a child feels unsafe by threats, words or actions of another person,” another said.

The cast acted out different bullying situations as examples, which ranged from taunts and shoves to more subtle behavior, such as a group whispering unkind comments about another student or getting up from a table in the cafeteria and leaving when an unpopular student sits down. They also touched on the subject of cyber-bullying, through text messages and Facebook postings.

Other comments revealed students’ reluctance to tell a parent or teacher about being bullied, for fear the bully would find out and treat them worse.

“We want to help, but we just are afraid.”

“When I hear of people getting bullied, I never hear of a hero.”

The play wrapped up with the question, what’s the solution?

“To eliminate bullying, we need to be reminded that we bully people every day, and we don’t even notice. I think a teacher or someone should tell us if we hurt someone. And then you should say you’re sorry, and not be doing it,” one student suggested.

Several students recommended that targets tell a teacher or a parent.

“We should step up and become heroes and not be bystanders, because it’s really hard to watch someone — anyone — be bullied,” another student concluded.

Students’ reactions

After the performance, principal John Stevens told the audience that the school’s guidance counselors would visit their health classes over the next few weeks to discuss the play and any concerns they have, answer their questions, and clarify anything they didn’t understand.

Julia Crocker, grade 7, Camden Emery, grade 6, Malcolm Hammond, grade 8, and Alana Morris, grade 7, shared some of their thoughts about the play in a discussion with The Times, Mr. Stevens, and guidance counselor Deb DeBettencourt.

When asked what he learned, Malcolm said, “I thought the play really showed what bullying is like, and how different kids have different opinions about what bullying is.”

“I thought it was interesting in showing all the different ways people bully, and how girls’ actions differ from boys’,” Julia said.

All of the students said that, based on what they saw in the play, they have seen some form of bullying at school.

“Probably more mental than physical,” Alana added. She and Camden both praised the cast members who shared their own experiences.

“I think that it was brave of them, that some of the actors said what happened to them in real life, which could be really personal to tell to almost the whole school,” Alana said.

The group agreed with quotes in the play from students who said they are reluctant to tell a teacher about bullying.

“I think that’s true, and I think bystanders should tell a teacher, even if they see it happening to someone for the first time,” Camden said. “I guess it’s okay to be scared to tell, because you’re afraid of being bullied yourself, but if you tell a teacher, then the bully will stop.”

The creative process

“Assertions” stemmed from the original theater piece about bullying that Ms. Swift did a few years ago with Sandy Stone of the YMCA Dance Program. Last year, Mr. Stevens, Ms. DeBettencourt, guidance counselor Eric Adams, and health teacher Sue Costello asked her to do a similar project at Edgartown School, in addition to the creative drama programs she already provides. Ms. Costello, Ms. DeBettencourt, and Mr. Adams collaborated with her on the project.

Ms. Swift said that in discussions with students about bullying, she made sure they understood the terms used in school policies and state law. Those include “target” for a student being bullied; “aggressor” for a person doing the bullying; “bystander” for a person who witnesses an incident but does not act; and “hero” for a person who attempts to intervene or stop the bullying.

Ms. Swift said she was not surprised by students’ comments about the extent of bullying, because she sees a lot of it while working in schools Island-wide.

“What I’m more surprised at is what people don’t think is bullying,” she said. “So I tried to have that come across by including all the different perspectives. My goal was not so much to teach about bullying but to shed a light, to show that if you go to Edgartown School, this is what students think about it.”

A second performance for grades K to 4 students took place on Thursday morning. IMP for Kids cast members included Tyler Edwards, Samantha Cassidy, and Raven McCormack, Edgartown School; Emily Mello, Nina Moore, and Devin Waite, Oak Bluffs School; Anne Culbert, Tisbury School; and Patrick Dutton, West Tisbury School.

Bullying law requirements

Schools are required to provide age-appropriate instruction on bullying prevention. As part of each school’s plan, not only students but also every one who works in their school or is involved with them, including their parents, must be trained to prevent, identify, and respond to bullying.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed a law regarding bullying in schools, which includes cyber-bullying through electronic communication, and harassment, in 2010. The law defines bullying as repeated acts that cause physical or emotional harm, place students in reasonable fear of harm, or create an unwelcoming or hostile environment at school for another person.

Although unfunded by the state, all schools are required to provide age-appropriate instruction on bullying prevention. Mr. Stevens said that Ms. Swift was paid for the bullying project as part of her work at Edgartown School through School Choice funds.

“Any time and resources spent on anti-bullying efforts are well worth it,” Mr. Stevens said. “We want to create an environment where a child feels safe, which is conducive to learning.”