By Elizabeth Keys
STILLWATER, Okla. — To the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” Julia Aikman sings:
“We don’t bully, no we don’t.
Hand over your heart and say you won’t.
Turn to a friend and give a ‘High Five.’
Tell them that you’re glad they’re alive.
Happy and Encouraging you will be
Cuz Bullies don’t belong around you and me.”
Aikman is going into the schools to sing — and talk — about bullying. With an operatic voice honed in a musical performance and music therapy degree, she has worked with children and teens in a behavioral hospital where patients were trying to cope with abusive relationships. She sometimes wondered if she could do anything to stop or prevent the issues presented at the hospital — and as a Wings of Hope Family Crisis Services Prevention Program Coordinator, she is hoping to put a dent in the problem. Her job is funded with a grant from the Oklahoma State Department of Health through a coalition against domestic violence and sexual assault to prevent bullying and promote safe dating.
“We are presenting programs to all ages,” Aikman said, “trying to instill from the ground up that it is never OK to be disrespected or to stay silent about abuse.”
She is often accompanied by Langston University football player, Dominique Barnes-Carn, who relates to the children that sticks and stones can break your bones and words DO hurt. Barnes-Carn said a lot of people bully because they do not feel good enough or accepted so to gain a sense of power they are unkind to others. He wants kids to know that whatever you’re faced with in life, challenges can be overcome if you ask for help.
Abuse can cause injury and even death, but it doesn’t have to be physical, he said. It can include verbal and emotional abuse or constant insults, isolation from friends and family, name calling, control and can also include sexual abuse. Abuse can happen to anyone, at any age, regardless of race, religion, level of education or economic background.
Verbal and emotional abuse are often overlooked because there is no physical evidence yet the psychological effects can last a life time. Any pattern of saying or doing things that cause fear, lowers self-esteem or manipulates controls is abuse.
“Sometimes kids follow peer pressure and join in a group that bullies to be popular,” he said.
Bullies prey on people they see as weak or have low self-esteem and are less likely to report the inappropriate behavior. Part of Aikman’s program is to teach children that bystanders are as much in the wrong as the bully.
“We need to develop a culture that makes it all right to tell on the bully,” Aikman said.
With technology, cyberbullying through the computer or mobile devices has increased as the bully sometimes can hide. The use of technology also stunts growth in personal relationships so Aikman had some classes track their digital time with encouragement to rethink how they spend those minutes or in some cases — hours and days. She wants the students to take ownership of their digital domain and use technology in a safe manner, while consciously assessing how they are developing their relationships.
“Nowadays, we’re used to texting, tweeting, instagramming — it’s easier to get responses back from people sometimes — but you can tell a lot by hearing a person’s voice,” Barnes-Carn said.
He admits its sometimes hard to develop close relationships in the digital age.
“Working in this program has been an eye opener — a lot of kids are bullied — and we are unaware as adults. Thinking back as a kid, I realized all we need is that one person to talk to about anything,” Barnes-Carn said. “If I can talk to one student — save one life — then getting up in the morning is worth it.”
Aikman wants students to “Expect Respect” which is the program concentrating on social media violence prevention. Students talk about defending their digital space through games and videos.
Her programs are age appropriate from empathy training for kindergarten children to “how not to date a jerk” for high school teenagers.
“At least one out of 10 teens has been in a relationship that has physical violence,” Aikman said. “Emotional abuse is even more common — and it can happen to both guys and girls. We hope to empower students to know they have choice in who they date.”
Aikman said they teach the difference in flirting when it is welcome attention, goes both ways making two people feel good about themselves versus sexual harassment which is one-sided, unwanted attention making the victim feel powerless.
“Flirting is respectful and enjoyable affection but sexual harassment is not. We want students to know they can walk away from a conversation that makes them feel uncomfortable,” Aikman said.
With her music training, Aikman has initiated analysis of songs to help students understand healthy and unhealthy relationships. The programs are developmentally appropriate targeting daily encounters from self esteem to healthy interactions with others. She has worked in Stillwater schools and the surrounding areas including Cushing, Frontier, Perkins, Guthrie and Wellston. Aikman is interested in extending the program’s reach to other school districts, too. Some of the programs have sparked families to come to Wings of Hope for help after their children came home and repeated “what they learned in school today.” Domestic violence is frequently passed from one generation to another and Wings of Hope seeks social changes through community awareness of breaking the cycle.
Call Aikman at 405-372-9922 if your school is interested in arranging a class or workshop. Programs can be targeted to specific groups or ages.
If you or a loved one are in an abusive relationship, call the crisis hotline at 405-624-3020.
Community members interested in helping fund prevention programs should send donations to Wings of Hope Family Crisis Services, 3800 N. Washington St., Stillwater, OK 74075.