Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Project: Bullying a hidden epidemic

By Manzhi Wu
Data Visualization, Spring 2015

Sonia Kotecha, cofounder of The Asian Behavioral Health Network in Austin, still remembers what happened in Vermont when she was a toddler. She was called “poop poop” on the playground just because she had a darker skin.

In kindergarten, she was teamed with another South Asian student to address teasing experienced by children of color in a school where they were in the minority. “As a kid it felt strange, I thought ‘why is a friend being imposed on me?’ It drew attention to the fact that something was different about me,” Kotecha said.

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When Kotecha was a child, her babysitter’s children, also South Asian, were picked on at school. “Growing up, I often felt like an easy target for teasing and bullying, because I was shy and came from a different cultural background than my peers at school,” Kotecha said.

Statistics from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that in 2013 almost one out of every five high school students in the United States reported being bullied on school property. Of that number, 21.7 percent were Asian American, 17.8 percent were Hispanic and 12.7 percent were African American. According to the Federal Office of Management and Budget, “Asian” refers to people from the Far East, Southeast Asia or the Indian subcontinent.

Besides, the rate of Asian American students being bullied increased more than any other racial group over the previous two years, rising 6 percent.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to Asian American and Pacific Islanders, they have the highest rate of bullying with very limited resources,” said Linda Phan, commissioner from the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Dr. Richard Yuen, a clinical psychologist at Lonestar Psychological Services in Austin, said the effects of bullying can be so subtle that sometimes many people overlook them, but over time they can transform into something more severe for the victim.

“There is increased chance of anxiety disorders, depression as well as low self-esteem that really cause me to concern for their overall adjustment to life,” Yuen said.

However, The American Psychiatric Association found that among all ethnicities, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the least likely to seek help for mental disorders. Experts say a cultural value of self-reliance and a fear of shaming the family may keep many of those being bullied from seeking assistance with emotional problems.

“If parents are not supportive of students’ emotional health, then the students have no place else to turn, so they turn more inside,” said Vincent Cobalis, the vice chair of the City of Austin Asian American Quality of Life Commission. “The Asian culture is very reluctant to admit to mental health issues, then they don’t seek out help. We need to break out of that perception that dealing with mental health issues is negative.”

Kotecha is now a social worker and her work touches on race, ethnicity and children and family support. She believes that parents can play a crucial role in addressing bullying and racism.

“We don’t get a lot of protective messages from our parents about potential racism and discrimination in the mainstream society, because I think many of our parents who are immigrants don’t know the history of race in America; they don’t know how deeply rooted that is. They are coming here focusing on education, good quality of life. They didn’t grow up in the context.”

Kotecha said she thought that parents should not simply try to avoid confrontation. “Many Asian parents just told their children to go to school, focus on studies and ignore everything else. They should know it’s more complicated than that. Kids have pressure to fit in and learn social skills, which can also be productive in the real world too,” she said.

For Kotecha, it is all about education – educating teachers and students to be more attuned to bullying and to be more open to different cultures, races and ethnicities. However, in Texas, children from kindergarten to eighth grade don’t have many chances to learn about Asian American history.

According to Noreen Rodriguez, a bilingual elementary teacher in Austin for nine years, she remembers the only times Asians are mentioned in textbooks are for the Chinese during the building of the transcontinental railroad and Chinese exclusion, and Japanese internment during World War II. “The two instances where you talk about Asian groups, it was a very long time ago,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said she noticed when people talk about Asia now in school, it’s often through 3“F”s: Food, Festival and Fun. She thought that’s not enough: “You celebrate a holiday one time a year and that’s it. So what the students know is ‘Oh, the Chinese people have this holiday and it’s fun, and I made a lantern in school,’” Rodriguez said.

She is now working closely with a historian at UT to develop a curriculum for kindergarten through eighth grade in Asian American studies and professional development training for AISD teachers.

On Rodriguez’s bookshelf, there is a children’s book called “Paper Son,” which tells a story of Chinese immigrants. She hopes teachers can teach Asian American history using children’s literature, when there’s so little in textbooks. “It’s hard to teach the things you don’t know,” said Rodriguez, “I’ll expose them to these books and tell them about the history that is not part of what they themselves learned.”

*Anti-bullying campaign across the nation*

Tales of harassment and staggering statistics have prompted actions nationwide, including Austin, where a group was voluntarily formed to deal with the bullying of Asian Americans. The team was composed of Vincent Cobalis, the vice chair of Austin Asian American Quality of Life Commission; Thao Phao, licensed professional counselor and therapist; Peteria Chan, research associate at the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health at UT Austin; and Nicole Williams, a teacher from St. Andrew’s Episcopal School.

“There is expectation among Asian cultures that if the rule is there, then people should be fine,” said Cobalis, “But I don’t think that you can rely just on rules and policies. You have to get people to care about you.”

In Austin, the team is trying to launch a mentorship program. “The idea is to get college students that have been bullied to talk about their experience and share their experience with high school students, and then high school students can share their experience with middle school students,” Cobalis said.

Dr. Richard Yuen said this kind of communication is vital.

“The first and foremost component of any anti-bullying measure is we have to have an honest, open and friendly dialogue about aggression and bullying behavior, ” Yuen said. He suggested that stakeholders including youth, parents, teachers and principals should all be involved.

Right now, the White House initiative is holding listening sessions across the country, according to Linda Phan, commissioner in the initiative. A federal survey for those who interact with Asian youth is in process.

The listening session was aimed at learning what the kids’ experiences are like. “When they are being bullied, who are they getting help from? Do they know where to get help? Do they think their teacher and parents are good sources?” Phan said.

On April 29, the White House initiative will come to Austin and team up with Canyon Vista Middle School for a listening session.

The Asian Behavioral Health Network (ABHN) and the YWCA of Greater Austin are also organizing a workshop focusing on the impact and cultural implications of bullying. A panel of mental and behavioral health professionals will provide examples and lessons from real life experiences, as well as foster a collaboration to address the issue.

“Our hope for this training is to raise awareness about the hidden epidemic of bullying and Asian American youth, while discussing ways we can work together to prevent bullying in our schools and community,” Kotecha said.


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