When Brittany Purtell heard one dancer was repeatedly bad-mouthing another on her eight-person competition team in early 2017, she knew she had to take action. "We got word about bullying among the team members," she says. "It started at their school and then carried over to the studio." A dancer was spreading rumors about her teammate: "Something along the lines of 'So-and-so is not trying; she's not practicing; she doesn't deserve to be on the team,'" says Purtell, who directs the Senior Elite team at Open Space Studio in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Concerned the bad-mouthing could lead to a serious rift among teammates, she planned a camaraderie-building session, where students filled poster boards with dance compliments about one another—and themselves—and decorated the studio with hearts where they'd penned why they love dance. She's heard no complaints since, but statistically speaking, she likely will face some variation of this challenge again.
It happens to 21 percent of students ages 12 to 18: repeated, unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children, where there is a real or perceived power imbalance. Bullying can be verbal, like teasing; social, like excluding someone on purpose; or physical, like shoving or hitting—and don't forget two of those three can happen online, largely out of sight of teachers and parents. In the most extreme cases, bullying has caused students to hurt or kill themselves.
Whether it happens in the studio lobby or via Instagram after students go home, it's a teacher's responsibility to take it seriously. "The safety of children has to be above profit, awards, ego, likes on Instagram," says Leslie Scott, founder of the nonprofit Youth Protection Advocates in Dance (YPAD). "That needs to be your moral compass." There's no single step-by-step protocol that will work in every scenario with every bully and victim. But there are rules you can put in place and methods you can use to handle the situation in the best way possible to maintain a safe and positive environment for your dancers.
Make it a mandate.
If you're an owner, have dancers new to your studio go over your student handbook with their parents as part of their orientation. Include a contract about bullying that they must sign before starting class. Detail what behavior you won't tolerate—remind them that bullying comes in different forms, including online—and write down what specific consequences a student can face if she breaks the contract, up to and including removal from the studio.
Regardless of what organization or venue you teach within, you should familiarize yourself with that institution's rules regarding bullying and clearly explain it—ideally in written form—to your students.
Talk about it.
"Rules only change behavior to a point," Scott says. Dancers need to have empathy and compassion for one another. "Making space to have a conversation about the 'why' is so crucial to creating a positive culture. If we don't say it out loud, it seems like less of a big deal to break the contract," she says.
It's likely you won't have the expertise to cover all the topics that contribute to a bully-free environment, so don't hesitate to bring in an expert to do a presentation on bullying or related topics like self-esteem, diversity and compassion for others. Purtell's team-building activity "helped turn the mood around" in her studio, she says.
Teach reporting. Give students clear instructions on what to do if they witness or hear about bullying. Teach them to spot the signs. Katie Gatlin, a mental health professional who works as a consultant with YPAD, recommends asking the following questions: Is the behavior intentionally hurtful? Is it persistent? Is it pervasive, meaning it interferes with someone's daily life and studio experience? Tell dancers who to report the behavior to and how.
Additionally, train staff to watch for behavior that may suggest a student is being bullied: often arriving late or early to class, losing personal belongings, complaining of headaches or stomach aches or otherwise avoiding activities—including dance—that are usually fun for them. They could be avoiding a situation that has become stressful because of a bully.
Promote helpful-bystander practices.
Teach students how to respond when they see bullying. There are resources available through YPAD and
stopbullying.gov, where advice includes not "liking" hurtful social-media posts; not laughing at in-person bullying; speaking privately to the bully to let them know you don't like their behavior; reaching out to support the person who has been victimized; and, of course, reporting the behavior to an adult.
Act promptly and with care. Not every case is the same, so it's tough to standardize an approach. Sometimes a parent can be part of the problem, for example, so they won't be helpful in reaching a solution. Generally speaking, however, if you witness or hear about a situation between students, meet separately with the bully and her guardian and with the victim and her guardian. Keep another teacher in the room to avoid conflicting accounts of the conversation. A parent may feel defensive when their child has been accused. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says never ask students to share in front of others what they've seen and not to meet with the victim and perpetrator together or try to force them to apologize to one another on the spot.
In cases when you suspect unreported bullying, Gatlin suggests calling the dancer's school counselor to let them know what behavior you've witnessed, as well as contacting her parents. Privacy laws will prevent a therapist from sharing information about the student, but your tip may align with concerns they share.
Don't overlook the bully. Be careful that a "zero-tolerance" policy doesn't translate to intolerance. According to Gatlin, bullying behavior is shaped by a child's peers, family and environment, in addition to her own tendencies. She could be in school with teachers who ignore bullying, have friends who bully or has been bullied herself, or be facing abuse at home. Look into the reasons for bullying behavior instead of dismissing the bully as a bad person. They likely need help, as well.
Enforce the rules. Depending on how your conversations with students and parents go and whether the behavior changes, you may, regrettably, need to ask a dancer to leave the program. Scott says it's essential you enforce the rules you've established, even to the point of asking a dancer to leave. "Clients look to the owner to follow through and stick to what they say," Gatlin says in a YPAD webinar on bullying (available on YPAD's website, ypad4change.org). The same goes for a leader of any dance program. "Respect and loyalty is gained by maintaining this precedent and standard. People, when they sign their children up for dance, want to know that the environment is safe."
Be a role model. As a faculty member or leader in your community, you have a unique ability to shape the environment. Remember that dancers watch and learn from how you handle conflict, competition and other stressors of studio life. Talk privately about any issues with parents and other teachers to avoid creating an atmosphere of gossip or tension. If you let dancers follow you on social media, never get into public conflicts on those platforms. "Kids are very perceptive," Scott says. Gatlin agrees. "How I talk about others dictates how my students will talk about others," she says. "Kids see that, and they'll emulate that."