By Patti Agatston

Patricia Agatston

Patti Agatston

I recently returned from Denver where I had the privilege to both attend and present at this year’s International Bullying Prevention Conference that featured over 650 participants from over 15 countries and 34 states.
Empathy and kindness
The theme was “Reaching New Heights in Bullying Prevention through Empathy and Kindness” and the opening keynote by Dacher Keltner on the Science and Practice of Cultivating Compassion really set the tone. Turns out there is some good news that we are hardwired for sympathy and according to Keltner even Charles Darwin argued that “communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.”  Keltner also shared how compassion inspires elevation and that generosity can spread through networks. Therefore working to increase compassion and kindness in our homes, schools, and communities is quite possible through the natural “viral contagion of compassion” that occurs.
Sexual shaming and bullying
Other highlights of the conference included the screening of Emily Linden’s Unslut Documentary that asked us to seriously consider the sexual shaming and sexual bullying that occurs in our culture. In particular we need to question the victim blaming that occurs in particular with females who are blamed for sexual assaults and exploitation that target them. One of the quotes from the film reminded us that we don’t blame those who are victims of robbery for using an ATM or being out after dark, yet we are quick to blame victims of sexual bullying, sexting, and even sexual assault for the abuse that they receive.
Fighting for rights
Civil rights activist and member of the Little Rock Nine,  Carlotta Lanier Wall’s  Tuesday keynote was quite powerful and a reminder that we still struggle with racism and other forms of identity-based bullying. The sense of self that she had developed through the benefit of her family and support systems enabled her to withstand the frightening intimidation and abuse that she and the other students experienced.
But not all of our marginalized youth have the same support systems and developed support systems to help them overcome such challenges. Dr. Tony Issenmann, in his session on Bullying and the Resulting Trauma, shared a case example where a young man went from thinking that his attempts to stop bullying “were not worth it” to the belief system that “I’m not worth it.”
And as researcher Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt shared, there are quite a few long-term physical and mental health problems linked to bullying because it interrupts our fundamental need to belong. Thus preventing bullying is a true public health issue. So we need to get all stakeholders at the table (including youth) to ensure that compassion and inclusion does become contagious. There were a number of wonderful student-led sessions that showcased students actively working to highlight and promote kindness as the norm.
But we also have to continue to look for any abuses of power that our systems support or even encourage in some situations. While kindness is the antidote to meanness and cruelty, we have to also remember that bullying is a form of abuse that results from a power imbalance, and if we are encouraging a power imbalance by giving privilege to some over others based on race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. (or even adult over student) we have to name it and address it. We’ll be continuing the conversation next year at our conference in New Orleans Nov. 6 -8th, 2016.  Hope to see you there!
Dr. Patricia Agatston is an author and Licensed Professional Counselor with the Prevention/Intervention Center, a student assistance program that serves more than 100 schools in the Cobb County School District, a suburb of Atlanta Georgia. Learn more at