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Maryland Teen Hopes to Make Bullying a Thing of the Past

The You Have The Power! Bullying Prevention Peer Education Project (YHTP!) is a 10-week after-school program where trained high school age youth mentors, with adult supervision, teach elementary and middle school students about the characteristics, risks, and consequences of bullying, and bullying prevention.Teen Advocate Colleen O'Neill

Often when people hear the phrase “peer pressure” they think of how young people can influence each other in negative ways. However, peer pressure can also apply to how youth can be positive and supportive role models to others. As a high school student, Colleen O’Neill had an interest in promoting bullying prevention in schools. Her friends, including Mike Sousane encouraged her to become involved with the You Have the Power! Bullying Prevention Peer Education Project (YHTP!) at Sherwood High School in Maryland.

“I've always been someone that wants to help the community and the people around me. Some of my friends volunteered for You Have the Power!. From what I heard about it from them, it sounded like a great way to get involved, help the community and have fun. I also love working with kids, so knowing that was part of the program helped me choose to join.”

The 18-year-old recently graduated from high school, but she was a youth mentor with YHTP! from her sophomore to senior year. Colleen did not have personal experiences with bullying – that is, not as a person who bullied or a student who was bullied. However, she has friends who have been bullied by others. She was particularly bothered by the power imbalance in those bullying incidents.

“One of my friends was heavily cyberbullied. It was really tough to watch her go through it and how upset it made her. She really relied on me and some of our other close friends to encourage her. Ever since that experience, it has always irritated me to see those who feel that they have more power or need to take others down in order to feel better about themselves.”

As a youth mentor, Colleen enjoyed how the mentors and mentees developed trust over time. The high school students worked to create a safe environment where the elementary students felt comfortable and were willing to be more vocal about their challenges with bullying.

“Since bullying can be such a sensitive topic, we really like to emphasize that anything said during group sessions stays with the group members and that any stories told should avoid using any names. We have them sign a confidentiality agreement during our first session so that they understand that. Besides that, we also like to share our own stories and experiences with bullying so that they know that we have been through similar things and can relate to them.”

Ultimately, Colleen would love for us to live in a bully-free world. And in her volunteer work, she wanted to demonstrate that everyone has a role to play in preventing bullying. She was encouraged by knowing that her actions could ultimately have a larger impact.

“One day, I hope to see that bullying is a thing of the past. I want kids in the future to be able to go to school without being scared that they're going to get picked on. While I worked with a small amount of kids and this program is fairly localized, I feel that I have done my part in trying to spread the word on how people can try to end bullying. People don't have to do things on a large scale to make a difference -- they can do something as simple as inviting someone who is eating alone to come sit with them, or asking someone how their day was and showing genuine interest in their response. The little things can help save a person who is being bullied and feel like they are not alone in the world.”