July 5 2012 12:00 AM

BullyBust uses 'Wicked' to address bullying


“Wicked” is set in the land of Oz, where animals teach college classes and the devious Madame Morrible manipulates the weather with a wave of her hand. Of course, it’s a fantasy — and yet, as Darlene Faster points out, there are some genuine real-world concerns behind the magic.

Faster is the chief operating officer of the National School Climate Center, which organized the BullyBust program three years ago in response to the problem of bullying in schools. In 2010, BullyBust began a partnership with “Wicked” to promote its efforts.

“‘Wicked’ was such a natural fit,” Faster said, in a phone interview from her office in New York. “The story of ‘Wicked’ encompasses so many universal themes. In it, we see what true friendship looks like, as well as what it feels like to be isolated or viewed as being different than other people.”

At Shiz University, the green-skinned Elphaba is shunned by her classmates and tormented by her outgoing, stylish roommate, Galinda (soon to be rechristened Glinda). Instead of reacting with violence, Elphaba chooses to continue being the person she is. Eventually, Galinda is shocked to realize that Elphaba is actually a good person to have on your side. 

“When you talk about (bullying) in terms of these characters, you see students’ minds open up,” Faster said. “They see how they can react to bullying in a more positive way.”

The BullyBust program — which Faster said goes beyond the usual “one-off assemblies or one-day campaigns” — has been used in more than 1,100 schools nationwide and Faster said over 500,000 students have participated in it. The “Wicked”-oriented materials are available for free at www.schoolclimate.org/bullybust.

Getting adults involved in the campaign is crucial, according to Faster. “About four or five years ago, we started to see a disparity popping up between students’ perception of bullying and adult perception of bullying,” she said. “We would talk to students and they’d say, ‘It’s happening.’ We’d talk to adults and they’d say, ‘Oh, we’ve got it under control.’”

The issue has received an increased amount of media attention in the past decade after a spate of bullying-related suicides and school shootings. The arts world has paid attention: Locally, Kevin and Tammy Epling, whose 14-year-old son killed himself in 2002, launched “The Bullycide Project,” and Mid Michigan Family Theatre artistic director Bill Gordon wrote “Bully-Be-Gone: Tactics and Strategies for Reducing Bullying in Schools,” which has been produced in schools and other venues. 

Much of what is happening these days goes far beyond name-calling or stealing someone’s lunch. “It’s a whole different ball game now,” Faster said, especially with “cyberbullying,” in which young people can be tormented via Facebook and other social media sites. “A student who would never bully anyone face to face will do it online, where they think they’re anonymous.”

In response, BullyBust has promoted an “Upstander Alliance,” to raise awareness of bullying outside of schools. The mission, Faster said, is to “directly engage the adults in the community — not just parents and teachers but faith-based leaders, business leaders and anyone else who could help. Upstanders recognize when bullying occurs and take steps to make it right.”

Often, communication, not condemnation, is the most powerful tool in bringing down bullies.

“I think a lot of the time the reaction in schools is to punish,” Faster said. “We need to remember and recognize that students who bully are not bad people; they’re just doing bad things. Who knows? Maybe they’re witnessing bullying in their homes and maybe they’re not able to process their own emotions.”

Faster points to an essay submitted for a BullyBust contest. “This kid wrote that he was a bully for years. He was getting bullied at home. He said, ‘I thought if I can get this pain out of me and put it on someone else, I’ll feel better. But I actually wound up feeling worse.’”