Meg Meeker, M.D.
Beth Maday is no ordinary high school counselor.
She seems to have single-handedly tackled the problem of bullying in her high school and won. At least, that‘s what one young man, Jeremy Flannery, says.
From grade school through high school, Jeremy was mercilessly bullied. By the spring of his junior year in high school, his mother, Robin, was seriously considering moving her family across the country so that Jeremy might find a school where he wasn’t bullied.
Seven years ago, Jeremy’s father died of cancer leaving his mother with three young children. In addition to grieving her husband’s death, she had to help Jeremy keep his spirits up at a school where kids verbally chided him for being different. Robin tried homeschooling him. That helped, but he missed other kids.
He tried one public school and then another. He would place his lunch tray down at a table, and kids would move it to a table where he was forced to sit alone. Once he was shoved into his locker but refused to tell his mother of his school troubles because he didn’t want to worry her. He tried telling teachers what was happening, but many told him that there really wasn’t much they could do because the bullies came from “troubled homes.”
When his mother did find out what was happening, she advocated for him but ran into the same problems. Teachers knew what was happening but felt impotent to do anything about it. At one school the principal got up at all school assemblies and lectured students on how destructive and intolerable bullying was. “That actually made things worse,” Robin said. Because there was so much focus on bullying but no consequences given for mean behavior, the bullies actually felt empowered.
Then a friend suggested that Robin take Jeremy to St. Francis High School. She figured that she had nothing to lose, so she visited the school. Fortunately for them both, one of the first people she met was the high school counselor, Beth Maday.
Seizing an opportunity to help Jeremy, Beth went to every junior class that Jeremy would take. She stood before seven classes filled with his peers and told them that they were receiving a young man who had lost his father and who had been bullied.
She talked about how Jesus never bullied (the school was a Catholic school) and how they were expected to act in kindness. Then, she asked students who among them would commit to have Jeremy’s back. She waited. Then one student raised her hand. Then another and another. Soon, the entire junior class at St Francis High School decided that they were going to take responsibility to help Jeremy. And it worked.
Jeremy told me that he has never been so happy. The entire football team (with a history of being state champions) asked Jeremy to be their media person, and he travels with them to all of their games. Beth Maday told me that seeing Jeremy at school is a real delight. “You can’t believe how much kids like Jeremy,” she said. “They encourage him and look out for him.”
Jeremy was having a bad day once, and a girl in his class sat with him at lunch and noticed he was down. “What’s the matter?” she queried. “Is someone giving you a hard time? Just let me know.” No one was giving him trouble he told her, but her concern lightened his load.
Successfully Driving Down Bullying
What made St. Francis so successful in driving down bullying were two things, Beth said.
First, students were challenged to be active participants in the process. They weren’t simply given a lecture; they were challenged with a cause and a person to care for. She even went so far as to tell the students that they had permission to be very assertive against bullies. No, she didn’t advocate violence, but she told the students that they should stand in the gap.
Second, she asked the students to collectively participate. One student alone might not stand up against a bully, but when the entire class knew that they had one another’s support to act against it, they felt empowered, she told me. That’s why St. Francis has been so successful, she believes.
Sure, St. Francis is a Catholic school, which can teach what God would do, but any public school could implement Beth Maday’s plan: Challenge the kids who won’t bully to collectively stand for those who are being bullied and against those who bully. Positive peer pressure can be a force to be reckoned with; we just have to use it.
So Beth Maday, on behalf of all of the Jeremys out there in our schools, thank you for a work well done!