YOUTHFUL VOICE: Some of the high school, TAFE and ACE students who attended the youth bullying forum at Wollongbar TAFE on Wednesday.
YOUTHFUL VOICE: Some of the high school, TAFE and ACE students who attended the youth bullying forum at Wollongbar TAFE on Wednesday. JACKLYN WAGNER

Victims of bullying won't stay silent

IT TOOK courage for two Alstonville high students to stand before 100 of their peers and about 35 teachers, counsellors and community representatives at a youth bullying forum held at the Wollongbar TAFE campus on Wednesday and talk about bullying.

But when they spoke the room hushed to silence, not a rustle could be heard.

Alice McCarthy, 17, quietly and confidently spoke about her own experiences of being bullied for many years over her physical appearance.

“I was told this was part of normal life,” she said. “But any behaviour that causes psychological, physical an emotional distress is not to be tolerated.

“No person should be made to feel unworthy.”

Keely Gordon-Smith, 18, said it was hard to say why bullying continues to happen.

“As a culture we have to ask why. It has been dismissed because it is so common - some say it is a natural right of passage,” she said.

“We are all guilty of it at some time.

“Bullying cements itself in the memory of the victim and it is magnified 1000 times.

“It is easy to inflict with words, looks, glares, leaving someone out ... pain is easy to cause.

“Bullying changes a person. But we all deserve basic respect.”

Keely called on the audience to make a commitment to help and support those around us who are the victims of bullying.

The youth bullying forum was part of collaboration by The Northern Star, TAFE, The NSW Department of Education, the UNCLE Project and the Richmond Local Area Command, and was convened by Regan Harding, youth project officer for North Coast TAFE, and Mark Gasson, CEO of UNCLE.

Ms Harding said the young people created the forum agenda and facilitated the day.

Students came from high schools, TAFE, ACE and youth groups.

During the day students workshopped five questions: How do people bully? Why is bullying so pervasive? What role can media play? What are the obstacles to address bullying? What are some good things that are happening to stop bullying?

Adults worked as a separate group in another room so the students could discuss issues without any inhibitions.

Several of the adults who attended included school counsellors from the Department of Education and TAFE, who helped facilitate the student work groups.

DET district guidance officer Steve Holmes was impressed by the response.

“The depth of thought and confidence of these young people, and their commitment to take ideas and turn them into action, is inspiring,” he said.

Lismore mayor Jenny Dowell attended part of the day and said adults had a lot to learn from young people.

“Comments about peer expectation, joining the pack, glossy magazines and media being part of the problem were really insightful,” she said.

Guest speaker on the day was Dr Nick Foster, business development manager from Crisis Support Services in Melbourne, who addressed both students and adults.

He had experienced bullying as a child because of his English accent.

Dr Foster was recently announced as the manager of Communication Strategy for the Federal Government's new Suicide Prevention Program.

“Any form of difference is enough to be bullied,” Dr Foster said.

“It is a pretty isolating thing to happen. Victims are seen to be losers - it is a big stigma.

“Victims see themselves as losers, and then often they become bullies themselves.”

Dr Foster said people who bully often did so to feel good about themselves because they were insecure, had been bullied themselves, or just needed to have control over their lives.

“People bully someone so they can fit in. There is an irony to it all,” he said.

“It is also a desire to be part of what is going on.”

To find solutions Dr Foster said it was important to work at a community level and not just in the schools.

“There is no silver bullet and you need multiple programs to make it work,” he said.

Dr Foster said the common factor in all bullying events was the fact there was an audience.

“If you don't have an audience bullying doesn't happen. We can do something about this,” he said.

“Bystanders can do nothing or join in. Passive bystanders can be as bad as active bystanders because they show people they are isolated. Either step up or walk away.

“Don't be an audience, don't play the bystander.”

Dr Foster warned the consequences of bullying could be catastrophic, and included depression, anxiety, physical health problems such as headaches, and that all these could be long-lasting.

“People can struggle for years with these issues. It is well know that kids who get bullied think about suicide - most have resilience, but lots get influenced. Between the ages of 15 to 24 there is a high prevalence of suicide because people feel so isolated at the time,” he said.

Dr Foster left the students with five tips:

1. Learn about what is bullying.

2. Acknowledge your part in it - are you a bystander. Look in the mirror.

3. Start stepping away from being a bystander because someone's life will be affected.

4. Talk about it. Don't make it a taboo subject. Talk to a professional, a parent, teacher, or police.

5. Tackle it as a community. It is a huge issue.

Maire Burron, from Community Connections, said it was a really successful day because there was so much youth involvement.

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