This last week my Musical Theatre students were faced with a bullying incident that compromised the feeling of safety that we've worked hard to cultivate over the years.
Read on for how I addressed the bullying with my students, and how I attempted to navigate dealing with an anonymous cyber-bully!
Each year, I have a graduated student return to help assistant direct the show. This is a great opportunity for them to learn the behind the scenes tasks needed to put together a production! Part of this learning involves advertising and managing our musical social media pages.
For the past 3 years, our musical Facebook and Instagram have run smoothly, without incident. Until Monday. On Monday my assistant director woke to a a slew of bigoted comments, specifically targeting the large percentage of queer participants we have in Musical Theatre. Multiple troll accounts (zero follower, zero following) had chosen to target my musical students.
My initial reaction was utter rage.
"How do I find these people and make them answer for what they've done?!" (If you have a program full of kids you love, you'll know that feeling when you will stop at nothing to protect them from feeling anything BUT safe and loved!)
After some digging, it appeared they may attend the same school as us.
BINGO! I figured I'd found them and could report it to admin, and my kids could see justice unfold (and hopefully the bully could be prescribed some restorative justice and support to behave differently!)
I'm sure many of you are less naïve than I am when it comes to internet trolling... It's next to impossible to catch a troll when they just keep making and deleting accounts. Regardless of whether or not they attend our school. Our only way to actually find these other students would be if kids were talking about it... Which may still happen but is still unlikely.
So what do I do? How do I dry the tears of my queer and ally students who now feel unsafe at their own school? How do I make sure my assistant director isn't fearful when he opens the Instagram again? How do I make sure my students feel validated for how scared and sad they are, and not minimize their experience with phrases like "It's just a troll... Don't pay it any mind."?
I don't know the answer, but this is what I did.
I talked to them about it. I had a private meeting, just Musical Theatre students, and allowed students to voice their own feelings of worry, sadness, and fear.
I apologized. I apologized that I wasn't able to protect them from it. I apologized that it happened at all. I apologized that they were hurting and that the feelings of safety they cultivate in musical was jeopardized by some outside force.
I thanked them. I thanked them for allowing me to be naïve to how awful it is out there at times, and how I was able to let my guard down as their teacher because of the beautiful space they created for each other. I acknowledged how well they create a safe bubble and how I can trust that something like this would never be an "inside job."
I recognized that I need to do better. As a cis, straight woman, I see how loving they are to one another. How any new student is welcomed with open arms and shown the same amount of love and respect as students who have built the program from grade 9 up. Now, I know that my queer students face bigotry and fear in their daily lives, but my privilege had made me ignorant to the likelihood of it being able to penetrate the rainbow barrier my students have forged.
I praised them for their strength, and gave them space for their vulnerability. I opened my door and my arms to their tears, letting them know that although I can't live it for them, I can feel it with them.
I reminded them that every day they show up despite this bigotry they show the world that they can and will be unapologetically themselves.
And then? Then I made sure they weren't alone in the halls. I made my presence known in the school hallways. I made sure they have a safe way home and feel comfortable getting there.
Finally, I had the students write "fan mail" to each other. A simple activity that students often do in elementary school but we forget about in secondary school. Take a piece of paper, write your name at the top, and pass one person to the right. Each person writes something they love/ notice/ appreciate/ etc. about the person and pass it on until everyone in the group has written on the page. If nothing else, I want the kids to know how loved they are when they're at musical.
Is this the right way to address a bully at the high school level? Especially when they're an anonymous cyberbully? I don't know. But I do know that we can continue to make our students feel safe against outside threats, and make sure that when those threats try to breach your safe bubble, you remind students of what they've built.
Have you ever had an experience like this? How did you address it?