Schools fight back against bullies one laugh at a time

About 200 7th- and 8th-graders swarm into the gym at Capitol Hill Magnet School in St. Paul. It’s assembly time, and this unexpected little chink in the routine of their school day lets in just enough oxygen to fire up the kids’ excess energy.

Most are just exuberant, but some are clearly jockeying for position as the clown or the tough guy. They’re kids. And they’re not always nice to each other.

Like all junior high kids, they sit right on the cusp: some seem nearly as big and as confident as adults; others look like they might be more comfortable in the smaller chairs and gentler environment of elementary school.

When the last of the teachers’ shushing seems to have taken effect, four enthusiastic young adults bound out and introduce themselves. They’re actors with CLIMB Theatre, an educational touring company based in Inver Grove Heights, and they’re here to perform Just Kidding, a play about bullying and harassment.

The plot is one that some kids in the audience can probably relate to: When the cool kid in elementary school moves into a bigger junior high, he finds himself at the bottom of the pecking order – and the target of some harassment.

Some of the lines are surprisingly racy for junior high: “Guess it’s that time of the month.” (Cue the audience: “Whooooah!”) The characters pass around gossip that one boy is gay. Another boy even shouts to a girl he thinks is loose, “Hey, when am I going to get my turn?”

But Brendan Ragan, one of four actors in the team, says that schools have thanked them for using authentic situations and language (though the plays never use profanity). “I think they’re even a little tame,” he adds. “If you don’t have a legitimate source of bullying [in the play], kids won’t accept what you’re trying to tell them.”

Just Kidding is one more than a dozen shows CLIMB stages in elementary and high schools around the country. Other antibullying shows include B.U.D. and the Bully and Ride of Your Life for younger kids. Nearly a half-million kids in 1,200 schools in Minnesota and neighboring states saw CLIMB productions in the past school year and the 32-year-old organization expects that number to keep growing.

Get ’em young

The same scene is repeated across the metro, in St. Louis Park’s Aquila Primary Center, but on a smaller, slightly quieter scale. Second- and third-graders file into the gym and sit cross-legged on the floor to watch Bye Bye Bullies.

These kids get a little dose of fantasy and a lot of physical humor mixed in with their messages. The mad scientist Dr. Ivegotit has developed a “brain switcher” – kids this age don’t necessarily know the word “empathy” – he wants to use to make his assistant Ivan stop being so mean.

The two young actors play all five roles in the play, getting giggles and belly laughs by charging down the aisle and using exaggerated voices while delivering this message over and over again to potential bullies: “Stop, think, and choose.”

Bye Bye Bullies is a new production of the National Theatre for Children, a Minneapolis company that has been presenting educational plays in schools since 1978, and presented by Minneapolis-based Free Spirit Publishing. It uses concepts and materials developed by the national organization Safe and Caring Schools.

They decided to add an antibullying play to their lineup this year as a way to reach kids early, long before the tragic situations our country has seen in recent years become a possibility and to give educators more tools. “Theories are great,” says Judy Galbraith, Free Spirit’s founder, “but the bottom line is [as a teacher] I only have so many hours in a day and I need to deal with this kid [who is a bully].”

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