Oppressors, their victims, and bystanders alike all have the power to make a difference in the struggle against bullying, said activist Kaitlin Monte, Miss New York 2011, who shared her insights and experiences with a packed Romita Auditorium at The College of New Rochelle on Tuesday.
Monte chose to take up the issue of bullying after winning her crown because, she said, "when you become Miss New York, you don't get to just sit in your apartment and say, 'oh, I'm so beautiful.'" She wanted to "shatter the stereotype of dumb beauty queens."
More importantly, Monte has experience with bullying. Her experiences in school played a part in her skipping her junior and senior years of high school and enrolling at the University of Tampa at the age of 16.
Her brother, with a condition similar to autism, retreated from social interaction because of way his classmates treated him. A sister, who is dyslexic, was harassed in college by a professor who accused her of cheating on tests and did not allow her to take part in class discussions.
"It's not just kids pushing on playgrounds," said Monte, who has also been stalked via text message by an ex-boyfriend.
A bit paradoxically, Monte said, "there's no such thing as a bully." Bullying is more about the behavior of people who make bad choices in an effort to exert control on their lives, she said. Leadership, she said, is the opposite -- taking control by making positive choices.
Monte shared what she called the "doughnut story" -- how one day, feeling sad and angry on her way in to work, she stopped and bought two dozen treats for her colleagues. Instead of being the sarcastic and mean person she would've normally been, "I was the secret doughnut fairy." It started a tradition that probably continues to this day, Monte said. "That feels powerful to me -- leadership can be very small."
The power of choice applies to victims as well. "When someone has put you in a box, you have an opportunity to not go down to their standard," Monte said. In many cases, as soon as victims make it difficult for their tormentors, they move on.
Bystanders also play an important role, and even the smallest gesture can make a big difference -- offering homework help, lending some clothes, or treating someone to a snack. "Suicides happen when it feels like every option in the community is closed to you," said Monte. "You may be that last door their remember."
Monte's presentation was followed by a Q&A session that also included Susan Conte, Ph.D., CSW, Associate Professor of Guidance and Counseling in the Graduate School; Dorothy Larkin, Ph.D., RN, Associate Professor in the School of Nursing; and Elizabeth Spadaccini, MS, LMSW, Assistant Dean for Support Services. The panel was moderated by Dr. Estrella Lopez, assistant director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Leadership.
The questions ranged from big-picture concerns, such as cyberbullying in schools, to audience members' specific questions about bullied children and siblings.
Monte is an official partner of the ADL No Place for Hate campaign, the United Federation of Teachers' "Be BRAVE" initiative, andworked with numerous leading programs including WiredSafety.org, STOPCyberbullying.org, The BullyProject, Teenangels, The Ophelia Project, All About Bullies Big andSmall, Karen Klein Foundation, End to Cyberbullying Organization, GirlScouts of America and more.