'Just teasing' isn't funny

The Times Record, September 23, 2004

Former assistant attorney general pens children's book on verbal bullying

FREEPORT - Peggy Moss always planned to write when she was older - but the Princeton University graduate and lawyer never imagined she'd make her literary splash with a children's picture book.

Moss' first book, "Say Something," a children's book about teasing for young readers in grades 2-6, received the 2005 Teacher's Choice Awards for Children's Books. Bright watercolors by Lea Lyon illustrate the story.

The book does not focus on the bright, cheery topics adults often associate with children's literature. Instead, it tackles a social issue that children are likely to encounter when they enter elementary school.

"I just don't think we realize how hard on kids it is to get teased, put down," said Moss, a former assistant attorney general and associate director of the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence. The center is dedicated to developing and implementing training programs to prevent bias, harassment and violence.

"I have talked to lots of kids who have been bullied and teased and I do know how they feel," Moss said of her motivation in writing "Say Something."

Sitting in her Freeport home, the 38-year-old acknowledged that not only is it tough to be on the receiving end of a mean-spirited joke, but "it's so hard to be the one that doesn't laugh," she said. And laughing or not intervening can have the same impact as telling the joke, she said.

Taking it seriously

Contrary to the old adage about sticks and stones breaking bones but names causing no harm, teasing and bullying can lead to violence, she said. In the Attorney General's Office, where she prosecuted civil rights cases, most of the violent incidents began with words. But if kids intervene early enough, violence can be avoided.

Dr. David Fassler, child and adolescent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vt., and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, said people used to think teasing was an innocuous part of growing up.

Now, he said, we realize teasing is a form of verbal bullying that can have serious consequences on a child's social and emotional development and school performance.

In a few instances, intense and ongoing teasing have contributed to children's suicide and homicide attempts. Fortunately, schools, parents and communities are beginning to take such behavior more seriously, and many schools have developed zero tolerance policies towards teasing.

Vermont and Connecticut have passed legislation that confronts bullying and requires school districts to take specific preventive measures. The attorney general in Rhode Island is discussing similar legislation, and Maine's statewide anti-bullying program, Maine Project Against Bullying, is at the forefront of trying to address intervention and prevention programs, according to Fassler.

As to the increased awareness and concern about teasing and bullying, Fassler said, "We're all interested in trying to reduce violence in our society and we're interested in raising a healthy generation of kids in safe settings. I also think it's our job as adults to make sure kids can go to school in a setting free from harassment and intimidation."

Plus, bullying is self-perpetuating, he said. "Many of the kids who bully have been bullied themselves and grow up to be bullying adults. They often have trouble in interpersonal relationships and trouble in work settings. They're clearly at increased risk for violent behavior."

Resources on Teasing

Tilbury House resources for kids on teasing: http://www.tilburyhouse.com/Children%27s%20Frames/child_fr.html

Maine Project Against Bullying: www.lincoln.midcoast.com/~wps/against/bullying.html

Center for Prevention of Hate Violence: www.cphv.usm.maine.edu

Stop Bullying Now!: www.stopbullyingnow.com

The New England Equity Assistance Center, a program of The Education Alliance at Brown University, on bullying, teasing, harassment: www.alliance.brown.edu/programs/eac/sptlt_bully.shtml

Rare topic

"Bullying is a big deal, especially after Columbine," said Melissa Orth, young adult librarian at Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick and chairwoman of the Maine Library's Association's The Lupine Award committee, which each year honors authors of the state's best children's books.

Moss's book, Orth said, "addresses an issue that is often not addressed in children's picture books. It shows the loneliness from the point of view of a person being teased." As much as anything, she said, the book addresses how to connect with someone who is being ostracized. Orth particularly praised the resources and conversation starters listed at the end of the book, which is published by Tilbury House in Gardiner.

"Peggy's book is one of the very few kids' books on this topic that speaks to bystanders and remind them to act," said Stan Davis, a bullying prevention consultant from Wayne and author of "Schools Where Everyone Belongs. Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., Davis wrote in an e-mail, "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

Communication tool

At the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence, where Moss worked full time for two years and still does some consulting work, she wanted a tool for talking to kids about bullying from their perspective. "Not talking down to them but a tool that would engage them," she said of her goal in writing the book.

So the mother of two sat down to write a book on bullying, a book, in a sense, she has been writing her entire life.

In "Say Something," Moss explores a range of teasing, including pushing, bullying and ignoring. But the protagonist, a young girl, learns that feeling sorry for kids who are teased is not enough. Ironically, the protagonist does not, in fact, say anything, but she does reach out to a young black girl who always sits alone. As a result, the protagonist winds up making a new friend.

The ending of the book is deliberately abrupt. Some people have told the youthful, bright-eyed author that they thought the book was unfinished. "Then what?" several of them have asked her when they reach the end.

"The whole purpose of this book is to get kids talking," she said. She didn't want to provide answers about how to stop teasing because, she said, "I really think kids have the answers."

Another of her goals is to reassure children how important they are. "Kids are in this tremendous position of power to make a difference in other people's lives," she said.

Moss has been traveling to different schools reading her book and leading workshops on the topic with students and teachers. She's contemplating a collaboration with her 12-year-old niece to write a sequel to "Say Something," and she's working on a novel and a collection of short stories for older readers.

For more information about Say Something Workshops, contact Peggy Moss at peggy@saysomethingnow.com.