Linda Nix, “Be a Friend First” coordinator for the Girl Scouts office in Albany, conducts a program session at Southside Middle School. “Be a Friend First” is in its second year in Dougherty County. (Staff Photo: Jennifer Parks)
ALBANY — In an environment that bullying is often passed off as a normal part of adolescence, a few of Albany’s Girl Scouts are being empowered to help change that mindset.
“Be a Friend First,” an anti-bullying program brought in by the Girl Scouts, is now in its second year in the Dougherty County School System.
Started last year as a pilot program at Southside Middle School, it was extended this year to Robert A. Cross Middle Magnet School and Merry Acres Middle School.
“It teaches young ladies the importance of being leaders in the community and to be a friendly peer … to not be a part of bullying, but the solution,” said Sonja Devine, the counselor at Southside Middle. “We got a call from Patrice Devine (membership manager at the Girl Scouts of Historic Georgia office in Albany) in reference to doing a pilot program.
“We teach the difference between bullying and teasing. With the problems we were having, we thought it would be a good idea.”
The pilot program began in April 2012 at Southside. It started off with a group of girls at the school whose teachers thought could they benefit from the program. This year, participants — all of them Girl Scouts — were given the option of signing up. It is currently being done for the sixth grade, with more than 20 girls in the current cycle.
“The girls we have here are doing better in terms of office referrals,” the counselor at Southside said. “They know it is expected of them to be leaders. It’s going pretty good.
“I think it’s something needed in every middle school. Middle-schoolers can be mean to each other. They need to understand that not everyone is alike. Everyone is different.”
Even with there being anti-bullying legislation in place in Georgia — which was strengthened in 2010 by Senate Bill 250 to re-define bullying and mandate school systems to adopt anti-bullying polices — it has continued to be a growing problem in recent years. Not only are children afraid to walk through the hallways in school or step on the school bus for fear of harassment, the onset of social media has led to bullying activity on sites such as Facebook, an act known now as cyberbullying.
The results of such behavior have been devastating for its victims, including the temptation for them to take their own lives.
“We stress to them that bullying is against the law,” Sonja Devine said. “We try to tell them to stop teasing and bullying. We also teach them to advocate for others.
“I hope it (the program) has the positive impact that is intended. We want them to be leaders and know what to do when they see it (bullying).”
The program’s sessions are done once a week over the course of eight weeks. Activities include a “Take Action” project, along with readings and discussions on certain bullying scenarios taht are relatable to schoolchildren as well as adults in the work place.
Gabrielle Taylor, a sixth-grader who has recently been participating in the Southside program, used to bully others when she was younger, but has since learned to be an advocate for those who are picked on.
“(In the program we discuss) how to take care of bullying and that fighting is not always a choice,” she said. “(We learn about) talking it out with other persons, and if they keep bullying, to tell the teacher or supervisor. We are learning about all kinds of bullying … physical, verbal and gossip.
“… I realize bullying is not the right way to solve a problem. I want to learn about bullying so I can help other people.”
Coming toward the end of her eight-week session, Gabrielle said she has taken from the program that there are other ways to solve problems other than picking on someone else — and that it is important to stand up for others when they cannot defend themselves.
That’s a message she wants other to learn as well.
“There are other people who need to learn that bullying doesn’t solve problems,” she said. “We need to teach people to talk out issues; they don’t have to fight. I think other people should know that because bullying and gossip puts other lives in danger.
“… I hope to help give influence to stop bullying. It can put lives in danger, and (you are) going to get sad because they will be gone.”
Patrice Devine and Linda Nix, the “Be a Friend First” coordinator for the Girl Scouts office in Albany, have been among those in the schools helping to conduct the program.
“Its overall purpose (for girls primarily in the sixth grade) is for team building, (teaching of) leadership skills and how to identify bullying, not being in a clique and how to apply (the lessons learned) to peers,” Patrice Devine said. “(The problem of bullying) manifests in middle school, with girls being more subtle. Boys are more physical.
“With cyberbullying, you don’t have to be in school.”
The program and its expansion became possible, Patrice Devine said, with the help of funding from United Way of Southwest Georgia. Coordinators are planning to also take the program to Radium Springs Middle Magnet School of the Arts, and possibly to Lee County, Devine said.
“Be a Friend First” came together following studies regarding how girls tend to express aggression, which prompted the need to bring in an extended learning experience. It is based on the Girl Scouts’ “aMAZE” program.
“(The participants) are learning from it,” Patrice Devine said. “They see that (bullying) is not just physical. Once they identify it, they are able to see those behaviors and are able to change behaviors (and build) healthy relationships.”
With the participants being Girl Scouts, there is also an opportunity for them to earn badges through “Be a Friend First.” They can earn a peacemaking badge as well as several different awards.
“It’s needed because I’ve been a victim of bullying,” the membership manager said. “It’s a problem that’s festered because you don’t have to go to school to be bullied. Girls are losing their lives, and they are being torn down. They have the power in their hands to stand up for themselves and others.
“I hope that we can reach schools multiple times, and they can latch into the program and what girls face in their generation.”
Findings from a Girl Scout Research Institute study showed that one-third of girls are most worried about being teased or made fun of, and feel most safe when they are around trusted people. While social networking sites have the upside of helping them stay connected to friends, 68 percent of girls said they have had a negative experience on a social networking site — such as someone gossiping about them — with 46 percent thinking that social networking often creates jealousy among friends and 40 percent admitting to losing respect for a friend because of something they posted on a social network site.
The study also found that reality TV has a tendency to distort how girls view relationships, with 70 percent thinking that they make people think it’s acceptable to treat others badly.