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Anti-Bullying Campaign officially launched at Afonotele Elementary

It's a hot topic in the schools, on the talk shows, and in the mainstream media right now, but in truth, it is as old as civilization. Empires have risen — and fallen — by employing its tactics. The weak are oppressed by it, and the strong believe they are made stronger because of it.

The Romans even coined a phrase to justify it — "Might Makes Right". They subdued an entire empire by having the largest army, the most advanced tools, the most feared weapons, and the worst punishment on earth (can any death be more frightening than crucifixion?)

They were militarily stronger than the vast peoples they conquered, and like so many other warrior nations — such as the Macedonians before them or the Huns and Conquistadores after them — they killed without mercy those who opposed them.

The Romans were the bullies of the world, and — on the world stage — we see that their tactics haven't changed much over the years, only the names and faces of the oppressors.

Fast forward to the present.. in September this year, a pop idol named Lady Gaga called on U.S. lawmakers to outlaw bullying following the tragic suicides of a number of gay youths who had come under attack for their sexual orientation. She tweeted, "Bullying must become illegal. It is a hate crime."

What does any of this have to do with a little school named Afonotele on the beautiful north shore of Tutuila, in the heart of the South Pacific?

Individuals, like nations, strive for dominance and control. Individuals, like nations, fear those who are different from them, and individuals, like nations, sometimes take unfair advantage to gain control of people and resources.

And lacking true leadership skills, and the constraints of internalized rules (golden and otherwise) children as young as four and five learn that sometimes they can push, shove, take what does not belong to them, or demean and demoralize others by teasing, taunting, or laughing at children they don't like... children who may be different in some way.

This is what some very dedicated people in the ASG Department of Health and Social Services and the Department of Education are working hard to end, by teaching children — as well as their instructors — a better way to live.

They are teaching them exactly what bullying is; what it looks like; how to avoid it; and how to deal with it when it occurs.

They are giving children — as well as teachers and administration — the tools to use, and the attitudes to embrace, that will, hopefully, make bullying a thing of the past.

On Thursday, Nov. 17, little Afonotele Elementary School, with an enrollment of 116 students, including the Early Childhood Education (ECE) children, were led by their principal, Laborday Atanoa, with her very special brand of compassionate leadership.

With the help and support of DOE's Guidance and Counseling Program, led by Liza Maria Tuato'o, Afonotele Elementary was able to launch their Anti-Bullying Campaign, and help children realize that in this, they are not alone. There is help available here. Members of the Department of Human and Social Services, working in collaboration with the Guidance and Counseling Program, spent some very productive hours with the children and staff of Afonotele, and according to Tuato’o, this is just the beginning of the Anti-Bullying campaign.

“We are going to every school with this program- even Manu’a” she said, adding that this campaign is truly a collaborative effort. She believes that while bullying may be “embedded in the culture", the transition will be for the greater good. “It’s vital that we begin now” she states emphatically.

During the morning at Afonotele, DHSS prevention specialists Margaret Lafaele and Peteli Tunoa quizzed the older children, gave them an understanding of what bullying is, and why it hurts, and left them with solid, concrete ways to deal with bullying.

Wendy Maleapeai from Guidance and Counseling worked with the younger ones.

They taught the children to:

* Ignore the bully. Sometimes, bullies just want an audience. Don’t give them an audience.

* Say Stop! in a calm voice, and walk away.

* Remember, a bully wants you to get upset. Don’t get upset. Stay calm.

Tactics on how to stop bullies in the first place were discussed:

* Stay in group if possible... keep your friends nearby. Bullies don’t usually pick on groups.

* Join club activities and make new friends. Don’t be a spectator, be active in school.

* If you see that someone is being bullied — get an adult. Don't stand and watch.

* Don’t help the bully by laughing — they are not being funny, they are hurting someone.

They also reminded the children not to blame themselves if they run into a bully. “It’s not your fault... Don’t keep it to yourself... tell a teacher." Bullying will not “magically go away" they cautioned.

Said Maleapeai to the youngest students: “It’s OK to be different. It’s NOT ok to be mean.”

Statistics on bullying are being compiled in various places, but on this most agree: at least half of all children will experience bullying in their school years. A wise parent will note the symptoms of a child who is being bullied — a lack of enthusiasm; consistent complaints of generalized aches and pains; not wanting to go to class, but not being able to say why; disengaging from school by a child who used to like school; an inability to concentrate.

The topic of “reporting bullies" was addressed. Children don’t want to tattle-tale (older children call it “snitching"); but since children cannot stop bullying all by themselves, they should be a part of the process which stops bullying. Reporting means you want to solve a problem that is bigger than you (vs.Tattle-telling, which just wants to get someone in trouble.)

It’s about a skill set, said Tuato’o. Learning ways to cope, ways to address the problem. A parent of a child who was being bullied said, “sometimes our children just want us to wrap our arms around them and tell them how much we love them... even better than advice, we can give them our supportive and unconditional love."

Parents must be engaged in the campaign as well as teachers, said Tuato’o. She is planning follow-up training for the teachers, including pro-active steps to help anyone with self-destructive behavior. She is determined to make real change, as she says with conviction, “if the leadership believes, the children will truly receive."

Before ending the day, the students, teachers and staff of Afonotele Elementary were given the opportunity to raise their hand, take a pledge and say, “I will not be a bully." They pledged.

The older children, teachers and staff also signed a giant banner which now hangs on the school grounds. It is a reminder to everyone that in their school, the children will find a safe haven, where learning, friendship and sharing will rule the day.