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Fighting meanness with 'Doctor Bully'

Union Leader Correspondent

August 22. 2012 1:23AM
Gorham seventh-graders participate in the Courage to Care anti-bullying program this past spring. The Courage to Care program, developed out of the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, is designed to help teach middle schoolers empathy and civility in an effort to prevent bullying. (Courtesy)

DURHAM - University of New Hampshire professor Malcolm Smith is known as 'Doctor Bully,' having worked on the issue for more than 30 years. His passion comes from a place that is deeply personal, having lost a friend in a school shooting many years ago.

Since then, Smith has worked to understand what leads to school shootings. As a member of the national crisis team, he has responded to more than 54 acts of school violence.

Underlying each act of violence, Smith said, is a child who was mercilessly bullied.

Now, Smith and a team of researchers are sharing what they have learned to try to stop the 'meanness epidemic' they say is pervasive in schools.

They have developed an anti-bullying program called Courage to Care through the UNH Cooperative Extension and piloted in New Hampshire last year, and is now being requested by schools across the country. It grew from a 2010 project titled Understanding Bullying, which interpreted what researchers know about bullying.

'When we were out, we did some research and asked educators what they needed to really tackle this problem, and what they said is they need an effective program for middle-schoolers that would get at the root of this meanness epidemic,' Smith said.

Looking at bullying, bullies, bystanders, school culture and climate, as well as what they know about seventh-graders and their development, researchers began to see what Smith calls a 'compassion deficit' among youth, particularly middle-schoolers.

Smith and the other researchers developed Courage to Care with the idea that everyone can be a good person, and students will lead the change.

'The key is students have to create a climate where they feel safe and where they feel comfortable talking to teachers and their parents about those issues. So we believe the best way to stop this epidemic is to empower students to change their school culture and climate,' Smith said.

The curriculum is geared toward the way seventh-graders think. Courage to Care is a nine-week program taught one hour each week in a classroom, and initial results were promising.

Videos featuring youth volunteers from the state that students can relate to start each section. Girls and boys respond differently, so to engage boys, an activity is used. The entire class is involved in a game that serves as a metaphor for what is being taught.

'The key here is experiential learning. We are not preaching to the kids, we are asking them what they think,' Smith said. 'That process is what helps most people learn character virtue and it has proved to be very effective.'

The program was piloted in Charlestown, Gorham and Wolfeboro with about 180 students.

'I really believe in the very cool things we did in this curriculum, but I didn't know if we could show a difference in empathy in a nine-week program,' project cofounder Rick Alleva, with UNH Cooperative Extension, said. But follow-up studies done by Patrick Shannon of UNH's department of social work did show improvement in cognitive empathy among students in the program.

'There was significant improvement in empathy, caring for others and a decrease in the likelihood that the Courage to Care participants would emotionally pick on other students,' Shannon said.

Last week, a three-day Courage to Care Leadership Institute was held at UNH's Browne Center to certify more educators. A second session will be held in New Hampshire in October, and Smith hopes to have at least 50 school districts in the program by 2013. Several institutes in other states are in the works.

Smith said they hope to develop similar programs for students in other grades.

'We are going to plant a seed in the next generation of middle-schoolers in New Hampshire that will change the landscape because they are going to understand the importance of civility,' Smith said.

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Gretyl Macalaster may be reached at

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