By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
When fights on Facebook spilled over from the Internet to the classroom at Seiberling Elementary School this year, the principal called downtown for help.
Merle Bennett Buzzelli, who heads Akron's innovative bullying prevention program, spoke to sixth-grade classrooms at Seiberling in early December.
She is one of eight bullying prevention specialists who are deployed to schools when bullying interferes with learning a unique approach in Ohio, and possibly the country.
Buzzelli, with her blond curls and big heart-shaped earrings, had the kids' attention immediately.
''Do you guys think bullying is a problem here at Seiberling?''
''Yes!'' they answered in a hearty chorus.
''What way is bullying a problem here?'' Buzzelli continued.
Name-calling, one girl offered.
Bullies don't just threaten violence, they follow through on threats, a boy said.
''Gossip,'' another girl said.
''Gossip,'' Buzzelli agreed. ''That's a horrible way. And do girls do that more than boys?''
They eagerly confirmed that girls hold grudges longer.
''We have never been in a classroom where kids just look at us,'' Buzzelli said afterward. ''They're always very open to talk about what's happening, good or bad.''
The program is part of the district's Office of Drug/Violence Prevention, which is tasked with handling the social and emotional problems that can interfere with learning. It is funded through state poverty assistance aid.
''I know that we are the only district in the state who has bully prevention specialists who just do the work that we do,'' she said. ''We've gone to national conferences, and to my knowledge, there's no one across the country who has people who do the kind of work that we do at the level that we do. There are people who do dual jobs, but not people who just do the kind of work that we do.''
The part-time specialists, who typically have a background in mental health or counseling, work with the kids involved in specific situations but also address entire classrooms.
Generally, they work at developing kids' skills in appreciating the feelings of others and practice how to respond to different bullying situations through role-playing and other exercises when walking away is not an option.
''We all have our own limits, too, of what we can take,'' Buzzelli said. ''We ask kids to ignore and walk away, but if you were in a situation where you were being bullied and picked on every day of your work life, you wouldn't do that, and we ask children to do that every day.''
Role of emotions
The reason Akron has placed such an emphasis on the issue is that reading, writing and arithmetic take a back seat in children's minds when they're worried about bullies, which makes it the school's business.
''These kinds of issues occupy big spaces in their brains,'' Buzzelli said.
Scientists are beginning to understand how our brains got that way and what it means for learning.
Kids care so much about what their classmates think because that's what we have evolved over millions of years to care about.
''Negotiating the social world is the reason, I would argue, that we have the brain we do,'' said Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a cognitive neuroscientist who studies the role of emotions in learning at the University of Southern California.
''It's not to do calculus or to find food or something like that. It's really to be able to get along with each other, because that's what enables us to do calculus and find food.''
Social animals from birds to chimpanzees to humans have larger brains than solitary animals, the theory goes, because it takes more computing power to work and play well with others.
Empathy the ability to share the emotions of others is an innate ability that varies greatly among social species, but finds its most complex expression in humans, who can feel moved enough to write a check for earthquake victims they've read about, but will never meet.
Researchers in recent years have found that we imagine each other's feelings and actions by physically simulating in our own heads what's going on in their heads, according to an article by Tania Singer and Claus Lamm published in The Year in Cognitive Neuroscience, 2009.
Many of those studies have used imaging techniques to observe what happens in people's brains while they imagine someone else's pain.
But Immordino-Yang at the University of Southern California also has seen physical responses in the deepest, most ancient regions of the brain when observing people while they think about someone they admire.
''When people say that they feel really inspired, what happens in the brain is not just high-level cortical activations associated with complex thought that we know are going on to be able to induce these emotions,'' she said. ''But when they feel this way, we see activations literally all the way down their brain stem into the medulla, as far down as the scanner can see.''
Some imaging research also has shown that bullies take pleasure in causing pain to others, which wouldn't be possible if they had no sense of what their victims are feeling.
''They may not fully appreciate the ramifications, but they certainly understand that it hurts the other person and they somehow derive some kind of reward from that,'' Immordino-Yang said
Chronic victims of bullying, like other victims of persistent abuse, might actually encourage bullies without even realizing it.
''Their way of regaining control is sometimes by learning to actually trigger and manipulate the bullying behavior so that they can at least accurately predict when it's going to happen,'' Immordino-Yang said.
It's a typically subconscious form of self-defense that sucks up a lot of brain power.
''If you're spending your mental and emotional energy predicting and controlling your own behavior in such subtle ways that you can predict and control the behavior of someone that you perceive is more powerful than you, that's using a lot of resources and a lot of intelligence,'' she said.
Buzzelli also knows that kids who are worried about bullying don't have much left in the tank for math.
''You know you're going into math class and the person who picks on you and bullies you is in that class, you're not ready to take in what you need to take in in terms of algebra,'' Buzzelli said. ''All you're thinking about is, 'How am I going to get through that class knowing that bully is sitting beside me or she's going to call me names or she's going to make fun of my clothes today or talk about my mom.' ''
Much of Buzzelli's prevention work focuses on developing students' sense of empathy.
In each of her presentations to Seiberling's sixth-graders, she walked them through an imaginative exercise in empathy.
''What if you were the person being bullied?'' she asked.
She asked everyone to think for a moment about a typical bullying situation where bystanders watch, but nobody tells an adult what's going on.
''Try to put yourself in the shoes of the person who's being bullied,'' she said. ''And let's say you're in the cafeteria and let's say there's four or five people picking on you and there are 50 people that are watching it. How does it feel to be that person being picked on and have all those people watching and nobody do anything?''
''Embarrassed,'' one girl said.
''Embarrassed; good word,'' Buzzelli said. ''What else? Do you feel alone?''
''Mad,'' one boy said.
''Helpless,'' another boy said.
Whether empathy can be improved is an unsettled and intriguing question for brain scientists.
''I don't know that you can create a more caring person,'' Buzzelli said. ''Just being more aware of how you relate to other human beings? I think that can be taught.''
At the end of her presentation, Buzzelli told the sixth-graders that they outnumber the bullies.
''This is your building, guys,'' Buzzelli said. ''[The principal] has lots of power in this building. She's in charge. But you have more power to change what goes on here than she does. You don't have to take this. You really don't.''