[Audio] Susan & Morgan Guess on How Bullying has Changed in Kentucky

Feb 16, 2016

Morgan and Susan Guess at WKMS
Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS

Last week, Kentucky State House passed HB 316, legislation to establish a definition for bullying in Kentucky schools.  Susan Guess is the founder of the Guess Anti-Bullying Foundation and her daughter Morgan testified in support of the measure.  On Sounds Good, Matt Markgraf speaks with the Guess' about how they have seen the issue of bullying change in the Commonwealth.

Susan and Morgan Guess got involved in working with legislators in a year-long study through Governor Beshear's Youth Bullying Prevention Task Force. A sister bill is also making its way through Kentucky Senate, where local Senator Danny Carroll is a sponsor. Paducah Representative Gerald Watkins is a sponsor of the House bill. 

National Landscape

There have been many similar efforts to define bullying in recent years, some successful and some not, Susan Guess says. She believes the unsuccessful attempts are due to the idea of fear wrapped around bullying. In the early days of work with the Guess Anti-Bullying Foundation, she says people thought that when they said Morgan was being bullied that it was a statement that the school was 'unsafe.' Now, people are starting to realize that bullying happens in every school, she says. 

Morgan says 160,000 kids won't attend school every day because they're afraid of being bullied and that every seven seconds a teen is bullied. The statistics are startling Susan says. She adds that when they started their work, Kentucky led the nation in teen suicide attempts and that one in ten high school dropouts in Kentucky cite bullying as their reason. Kids suffer in silence because they are afraid to speak up, she says.

How Schools and Parents Can Help

Adults can be a part of the solution, but young people need to rise up and speak up, Susan says. While adults should help any child who asks for help, change comes with young people. Conversation is important, she says, encouraging parents and educators to talk about bullying.

When identifying warning signs, look for change in a child's behavior, but this is not as easy as some might think. Morgan says she didn't tell when she was being bullied because she was afraid it would get worse. Susan says parents sometimes give bad advice of 'ignore it and it will go away.' This is an adult response, she says, and that kids will keep on bullying until they get a reaction from their victim.

How to talk to your child about bullying 

Susan suggests explaining to your child that bullying happens everywhere so there is no shame if it's happening to them. Kids who are being bullied can feel like they are alone and may hide it. Have a frank conversation, she says, ask 'has anyone been mean to you?' Tell them there's a difference between telling and tattling. Telling is when you are trying to help yourself or someone else, tattling is when you are trying to get someone in trouble, she says. 

Growing up as an Anti-Bullying Advocate

Morgan says when she first started speaking up about bullying through the Guess Anti-Bullying Foundation, she didn't realize how much bullying was going on. She learned that many of her friends had also experienced bullying and that children hide it well. Over the years, she's noticed that schools are doing more to address the issue. 

Susan says early on she thought her daughter would be a target for bullying, but instead found support from the school system and the state. Kids come to her very desperate for help now and the challenge has been how to help those kids while maintaining a sense of joy for their 13-year-old daughter. 

Spending time in Frankfort, Morgan says she's become interested in the senate. The legislature has been a strong support for her. Morgan says she also enjoys tennis, theatre, playing with her dog and listening to vinyl.

People Opening Up Now

The campaign to end bullying has come a long way, Susan says, but there's still room for improvement. She says on social media she'll either get great support or receive comments on how this restricts freedom of speech or unduly gives harsh punishment to a bully. To this, Susan says the campaign has never been about a bully or a school or a teacher, but about what we put out in the world every day and children taking responsibility for how they treat others. 

Before their efforts began, McCracken County didn't have a definition for bullying. Incidents fell into the legal "harassment" definition. When testifying to state legislators, Morgan said a third grader can't understand the legal definition. Susan says bullying is an unwanted behavior and it needs to stop. People aren't as afraid to address the issue now.

Nationally, the conversation has turned from "bullying" to "kindness," she says. It's an opportunity to treat people with respect and dignity. 

"Bullying is just a part of growing up"

This comment comes up from time to time regarding bullying, particularly from an older generation. Morgan says that with today's technology, bullying can happen 24/7 anytime, anywhere. Once a child leaves school, it could continue at church, prank calls, text messages, social media, etc. 

Susan says parents need to get involved in what's happening on their child's phones, particularly in apps where bullying can persist in an anonymous way. She says taking away their phone isn't always the best solution because kids will hide their phones if they think it's going to be taken away from them. 

Kindness Color Walk

The annual event began last summer to a good turn out. This year, it's being held on August 6 in Paducah. It's an event where everyone declares a commitment to being nice, Susan says, including students, parents, teachers, ministers, the business community, etc.

Guess Anti-Bullying Foundation on Facebook