Easy target

A Finnish anti-bullying program started in Lawrence last fall wasn’t able to help a boy who was bullied at school in my home country.

In Lawrence last fall, school officials implemented a Finnish anti-bullying program, KiVa, to combat bullying in schools. KiVa encourages students who witness bullying, even if they’re not the target, to stand up for those being bullied. The program won the European Crime Prevention Award in 2009 and, according to an analysis in the journal Child Development, the percentage of bullies has dropped by 61 percent and “victims” by 46 percent. Aside from the numbers, my experience of this program wasn’t so good.

I was with same classmates for seven years, from third grade to the ninth grade. Being with same kids for so long made us good friends, but this one boy was bullied on a regular basis. I didn’t ever get involved, but I didn’t try to stop it either. I knew that it made me one of the bullies too.

I remember when a man came to talk to our class. The boy who we bullied was gone that day. I don’t exactly remember what the man said to us, but it was something that made me cry. And I wasn’t the only one: The whole class was either crying or sitting looking guilty. We talked afterwards with my other classmates about how we wanted to make a difference. Did we do it?

Kind of.

After that, no one really bullied that boy directly. We didn’t heckle him or laugh; no one took his ball at recess or followed him when he rode home on his bike. But still, no one was his friend. He was still always alone, scared that we are going to do something bad if someone came close to him. I guess it was a change for the better, but I can only imagine how alone he felt.

I always tried to be friendly to him. I tried to say hi if I saw him somewhere, smile and offer him help if he looked like he needed it. When we were planning to go to dinner after our last school day together as a class, I was the one who asked him to come with us, but I never got an answer. He didn’t come. The saddest thing about it was that no one even noticed that he was gone — not even me until I looked at the pictures and realized he wasn’t there.

I have always wondered why we started to bully him. I remember how we made fun about his childish clothes, and that he had his name in everything he owned. We laughed because he rode a girl’s bike. Now, those reasons just sound so arbitrary. I guess the real reason he got bullied was that he didn’t fight back: He was an easy target.

I still feel bad that I didn’t ever do anything to help him. Being nice is not always enough. Maybe if we would’ve had that conversation with the man earlier before the bullying really started, his childhood could’ve been totally different. I think being left alone is also bullying, and the goal of bullying programs shouldn’t be just to stop bullying, but also to get those bullied kids to be part of the group.

A study about the KiVa program investigated this spring tested kids in grades 4-6, and it proved that the KiVa program helps to reduce students’ internalizing problems and improve their peer-group perceptions. It is seen as a helpful program to cut down bullying, and I don’t question that.

I remember one good thing about that bullied kid in our class: He was a really good basketball player, better than anyone else. Maybe he will make a career of it. He would deserve it.