Asma Haidara wonders what would have happened if she'd tried to tell her peers in middle school to stop making fun of another girl every day before class.
"It got to the point where her mom would have to actually physically push her into the doors of school — that's how much she hated school," said Haidara, now a junior at The Blake School in Minneapolis. "It just makes me think, wow, here's a person who couldn't be in the school learning environment ... because she didn't feel safe. That should never happen to someone."
Haidara said she knows she would have the skills and the confidence now to step in and say something, and she wants to empower other teens to be able to do the same. On Tuesday, she and other teen organizers from Blake will host an event called "Stand Up, Speak Out" to raise awareness about bullying and offer "bystander training" to teens from across the metro area.
The event is an example of something that's become more common in Minnesota schools in recent years: efforts led by students to change the culture within their own schools. Both teens and the adults who have worked to curb bullying say the strategy works.
"It really helps change a culture when there is buy-in from the constituency, and students are the constituents," said J.J. Kahle, who advises Blake's Justice League, the group organizing Tuesday's event.
"It's kind of scary [for the adults] to let go of the reins and allow them to determine the direction that a movement goes. But ultimately it's the best way to do it, and it engenders the best kind of change, which is change from within," she said.
Nicole Freeman said she's seen evidence of that type of change at Blaine High School, where she's a senior and the president of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance. Last year, in her beginning German class surrounded by freshmen, Freeman got up one day to ask her classmates to stop saying "that's so gay" — a phrase she'd been hearing repeatedly. She explained why it was offensive and then wrote the phrase on the board, circled it and drew a line through it.
“It's kind of scary [for the adults] to let go of the reins.”Blake teacher J.J. Kahle
This year Freeman caught a couple of kids who were in that class using the phrase — but they realized it right away, apologized and even corrected themselves, she said.
"When a teacher says not to do something they might just disregard it, but positive peer pressure is a really powerful thing. If you're willing to stand up and say something, people might look at you funny but they'll probably stop it," she said.
Later this week, Blaine's Gay-Straight Alliance plans to set up a table at lunch to encourage students to sign a pledge saying they'll work to help end bullying. A similar effort last year at the school collected some 1,500 signatures, Freeman said.
Kenny Stesin, a member of Blake's Justice League who is helping organize "Stand Up, Speak Out," said one of the goals is to encourage students at more schools across the state to do something to stop bullying when they see it. That could be a pledge drive or a simple awareness campaign in which a group of students wears stickers or buttons.
"We want it to be an annual event," Stesin said.
Stesin, a junior, said bullying is likely less of a problem at Blake, a private school where teachers and students have worked for years to eliminate it. But he said he and other students were moved to action after hearing about several recent teen suicides in the Anoka-Hennepin School District. Friends and parents of some of the victims have said they believe bullying played a role in the deaths.
"When we see ourselves as part of the larger community in the Twin Cities, we have a problem with bullying," he said. "We want to take what we've learned and the needs we still have to build on that and have an impact on the wider community."
Tuesday's event will include an area where student groups can set up tables and connect with students from other schools. Teens will also be able to learn how to step in if they witness a bullying incident. Dharani Persaud, a Blake junior and Justice League member, said there are right and wrong ways to do that.
"You have to assert yourself in a way that is not harmful to anyone in the situation," she said. "Addressing [a bully] with an aggressive attitude is not the best way to do it because they'll just be more aggressive. Maybe they just need someone to talk to. They're not always the bad guy."
"We're not in the business of bullying the bully," Stesin added.
Leaders of national organizations that have worked to prevent bullying say they're encouraged by student-led efforts in Minnesota and elsewhere. Beth Reis, co-chair of the Safe Schools Coalition, an international group that has targeted bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity, said the earliest efforts in the late '80s to stop bullying actually began with students. Then adults started to become more involved. Now, she said, student-led efforts have been gaining traction again.
That includes a campaign led by two high school senior boys in Canada to get classmates to wear pink T-shirts in solidarity with a freshman who was bullied and threatened for wearing pink. Reis said schools across the country are now participating in Mix It Up at Lunch Day, where students eat at different tables with kids they might not normally associate with.
"Probably the most powerful programs are ones where students work to change the norms in their student community," Reis said.
But Reis and Julie Hertzog, director of PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center based in Bloomington, agreed that students can't end bullying on their own.
"We can't just leave it up to the kids," said Hertzog. "Allowing kids to have a voice at the table is really important, but it takes parents, educators, and legislation to really address it as a broader societal issue."
Hertzog's organization is behind another anti-bullying effort this week: Wednesday will be Unity Day, when students will wear orange or write "unity" on their hands or notebooks to show support for those who have been bullied. Hertzog said the event came out of conversations with teens who said the word "bullying" was losing meaning for them. It was a reminder of how important it is for adults to listen to kids as they work to address bullying, she said.
"Kids have a language that we as adults don't always understand," Hertzog said. "They understand the dynamics of when two kids are interacting. They know the story behind the story that us as adults maybe don't know. And they also have an idea of what to do about it."