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LIPEN Launches ‘Cyberbullies Beware’ Anti-bullying Program

Plainview-Based Professional Education Network Takes on Cyberbullying

Long Island Professional Educators Network (LIPEN) has been fighting the idea that schoolyard bullying is inevitable for years with the aid of “Bully Frog”, a particularly bellicose cartoon amphibian with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. Over the course of the first Bully Frog children’s book, used by LIPEN as a part of an interactive anti-bullying program conducted within schools, the titular Bully Frog (actually Billy Frog) learns how to deal with other children in a more positive way, and the other children learn how to stick up for each other as well. However, is even a kid as tough as Billy Frog safe in the era of 24-hour text messaging?

Cyberbullies Beware, a new program from LIPEN, offers students, parents, teachers and administrators guidelines on how to deal with the relatively new phenomenon of cyberbullying. For LIPEN staff Roni Benson, Ginger Lieberman and Evy Rothman, the issue of cyberbullying is about much more than the occasional nasty text message- it’s about a paradigm shift in culture with frightening implications for not just children, but everyone.

The Making of LIPEN and Bully Frog

Started by Roni Bensen and Plainview-Old Bethpage school board member Ginger Lieberman, LIPEN has been around for 15 years offering staff development, sensitivity training and parent workshops to school districts. However, within the last 10 years, the main focus of the organization has been the Bully Frog program.

“We used to do a lot more, but all of a sudden, everyone wanted to just talk about bullying, so we really and truly focused in on bullying and cyberbullying,” said Lieberman, co-director of LIPEN and co-author of the Bully frog books.

The program has since been given to 250,000 children, and is often featured on television and radio programs, such as Eye on New York. According to Lieberman and Rothman, many of the ideas that eventually became the Bully Frog program grew out of discussions that started on the Plainview-Old Bethpage school board.

The cornerstones of the program involve teaching children the concept of empathy, starting from the young age of kindergarten, and critically, teaching children the difference between ‘tattling’ and telling; that telling an adult about a potentially dangerous situation is different from tattling on someone to get them in trouble.

As the children get older, they learn more about the different types of bullying, and the consequences that often result from bullying. Rather than one-time assemblies, the program utilizes repetition, repeatedly visiting the children in each grade level through eighth grade, to get the message across.

There are currently two Bully Frog children’s books used in the program, Bully Frog and Forlorn Frog’s Fantastic Valentine’s Day; Bully Frog was the winner of the 2004 Legacy Book Award from the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented. A third book focusing on girls’ bullying, tentatively titled Bossy Bessy, is in the works, as well as a book about problems in gym class.

One of the challenges that LIPEN faces is an acceptance among some parents of the idea that bullying is normal. “Some parents, especially dads, will say ‘it’s a rite of passage.’ No, it’s not a ‘rite of passage,” said Lieberman. Other parents may not be tolerant of bullying, but may not realize that they often behave like bullies themselves, setting a poor example for their children without knowing it. That’s why LIPEN strives to be all-inclusive, involving not only students, but parents and teachers as well; the program includes both parent workshops and staff development.

Cyberbullying: The New Frontier of Mean

“The traditional home as a refuge from bullies on the school playground is over. The Internet is the new playground, and there are no off hours,” claims the front page of the Cyberbullies Beware website. While cyberbullying has long been a part of the Bully Frog program, especially for the older children, the sheer amount of cyberbullying going on prompted LIPEN to introduce another program in the form of Cyberbullies Beware.

According to the website, 13 million American children between the ages of 6 and 17 have been cyberbullied.

“We have been asked- and it’s a sad commentary- we have been called in to speak to younger and younger grades about cyberbullying- and I’m talking young kids,” said Lieberman. “The level of meanness has really gotten out of control with some of these kids.”

As with traditional bullying, Lieberman and Rothman said that often parents are part of the problem; both for letting kids have computers in their rooms without proper supervision, and taking advantage of the online culture of virtual anonymity themselves to say things online that they do not wish to take responsibility for, once again setting a poor example. It’s this cultural shift towards anonymous meanness becoming more acceptable, enabled by the Internet that is particularly disturbing to LIPEN.

While there are plans to publish a book on cyberbullying, the book will be different from the other Bully Frog books due to the need to target it towards older children; while LIPEN directors are often surprised at the young age of children who complain of cyberbullying, it’s a bigger problem with children approaching middle school, when the tone of the bullying starts to get decidedly nastier, commented Lieberman.

The group has already published a pamphlet called Safe Kids, Sane Parents: House Rules for Internet Use, in part thanks to a grant from the office of State Senator Craig Johnson. The pamphlet is currently being revised with more information about texting, and the implications of new cyberbullying laws.

LIPEN will be administering the Cyberbullies Beware program starting in mid-October; it will also be part of a conference at the Nassau and Suffolk DA’s office in conjunction with Congressman Steve Israel. The directors have also been in communication with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s office on the topic of what legislators can do to fight cyberbullying. According to the directors, lawmakers often run into problems when trying to pass laws to protect children from cyberbullying due to first amendment issues, and this is something that they feel needs to be addressed.

School districts can book workshops for either Bully Frog or Cyberbullies Beware, and LIPEN will tailor the program to their needs. To find out more about the Bully Frog program, visit www.bullyfrog.com. To find out more about Cyberbullies Beware, visit www.cyberbulliesbeware.com.