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   from the issue of December 6, 2007

Production taps into UNL bullying research


Logline: When Dinah moves to a new middle school she quickly engages the wrath of Nicole -because of a boy. Nicole's dislike is evident in small behaviors, then escalates into full-fledged harassment: rubbing powdered deodorant on Dinah's gym clothes, then pushing and other physical attacks.

PRODUCTION MEETING - Australian producer Christopher Faull (second from left) discusses production items with with Irving Middle School students on Nov...
 PRODUCTION MEETING - Australian producer Christopher Faull (second from left) discusses production items with with Irving Middle School students on Nov. 30. Photo by Troy Fedderson/University Communications.

The crisis point: Nicole starts a rumor that Dinah is pregnant. It's a vicious lie. But it spreads through the halls like wildfire after Nicole writes it on the bathroom wall and posts messages about it online.

The plot of Dinah and Nicole and the bullying that is "typical" middle school drama is one of a pair of films produced, written and acted by students at Lincoln's Irving Middle School. It is part of an international education project on bullying by Australian producer Christopher Faull and UNL researchers.

Two groups of Irving Middle School eighth-graders have been working with Faull since September on the development of the docudrama that will eventually be shown nationally to educators, parents and other students to show them how to identify bullying, its causes and effects, and how to prevent bullying by promoting understanding and awareness.

"We create a story, a boy's and girl's, that is mirroring reality. The experiences that are within the story line are totally familiar to them, and so realistic they're compelling," said Faull, the producer who completed a similar project in Australia and another recently in Champaign, Ill. "Some kids are convinced that what they're watching is real."

The "Stories of Us: Bullying" project, "Promoting Positive Peer Relationships," is at Irving because of Faull's earlier work with UNL bullying expert Susan Swearer, who advises Faull and works on the accompanying educational resources. Swearer and two higher education collaborators, Dorothy Espelage of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Shane Jimerson of the University of California, Santa Barbara, will complete follow-up studies on the project to gauge its effectiveness.

The unique aspect of the film project is the level of participation among the students. Faull has given them rein with the storylines, scenes, situations, dialogue and characterizations.

Through the project, the 27 kids directly involved in the video at Irving will learn better than anyone about the emotional trauma of bullying and being victimized and harassed because of things like race, disability, social class, gender and just being one's self.

CONFRONTATION - Irving Middle School students practice a scene from the
CONFRONTATION - Irving Middle School students practice a scene from the "Stories of Us: Bullying" project on Nov. 30. Pictured (from left) is Trey Foster, Louis Root and Brandon Henning. Photo by Troy Fedderson/University Communications.


"In this project we're involving the kids, talking with them about bullying, discussing quite in depth the fighting, humiliation. We get into why it happens and how it progresses, from the bullying side and victim side," Faull said. "We share collective experiences, and through acting the situations out, it becomes quite real and actually very powerful."

Swearer, an associate professor of school psychology, has been working for 10 years with Lincoln Public Schools on bullying. UNL hosts the Bullying Resource Network and is nationally known for its expertise. When Swearer met Faull two years ago in Australia, he asked her to view the Australian version of "Stories of Us."

"We told Chris the accents and uniforms and some of the cultural differences that are evident in the Australian version would be distracting to kids in the U.S. and he agreed. So we offered to help him recreate the project here in the U.S," Swearer said. "The most amazing part of the program, to me, is how real it seems, and how it illustrates so powerfully the subtlety of how bullying starts and how situations develop over time.

"For the students most directly involved in the production: it will be life-changing. It's an incredible opportunity for them and it's an honor that we're involved."

Not only do the students get first-hand experience with identifying bullying behaviors and patterns, but they also get the experience of working on a professional film production, start to finish. In November, they spent time collaborating on the scenes and characters, situations and dialogue. Then they figured out what would play well on the video and how to make the situations look "real." In December, on to rehearsing and actual filming.

Faull said there are scenes and outlines for situations but no finished dialogue.

"We talk more about what would happen and throw things around. Then we'll rehearse and work on each scene and act it out, improvisational," he said.

The bulk of the filming will be Dec. 5-11 and Faull will edit in January and have a finished piece early in 2008. "Promoting Positive Peer Relationships" will be shared, along with the resources, study guides and lesson plans by the UNL researchers and other university collaborators nationally.

Bullying is an age-old problem that affects children in preschool and into adulthood. It is an area of research and a topic for parents, educators and psychologists on the best ways to identify and stop bullying before it affects children's development. Increased awareness about newer issues like "cyber bullying," sexual harassment and aggressive behavior in schools has helped bring more attention to the harm bullying behavior can cause. Swearer's research on school-aged children indicates that victims of bullying are more likely depressed and anxious than non-victimized children. Often, bullying may be left for students to work out themselves, or chalked up as typical child behavior. Sometimes violence erupts as a result.

Irving Middle School Principal Hugh McDermott said the school takes bullying seriously and he's glad the students have the opportunity to take part in the project.

"We talk a lot to our kids about bullying. It's on our front burner and we constantly address it," McDermott said. "We confront it and continue to look for ways to reduce and resolve these issues. This is important, because not only will our kids provide some very real scenarios, but it also educates them on resolving those situations.

"We hope that in the long run, it will help students in other schools also learn to deal with these issues."



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