From 6th-12th grade, Paula Orrego experienced many different forms of bullying from her peers. “I faced bullying (in the form of) verbal abuse, physical abuse, racism, cyberbullying, bullying because of my learning disability, and sexual harassment.” Instead of dwelling on the negative impact of her experiences with bullying, Paula says those experiences have “really helped” her as an anti-bullying activist.
Entering her senior year of high school, Paula received an email from her school with a list of internship and job opportunities. At the bottom of the email, there was a small blurb about an activism camp, called Youth Empowerment Action (YEA) Camp. At this time in her life, Paula already knew that she wanted to help youth and prevent bullying, but as Paula says, “I just wasn’t sure how to start or where to begin.”
YEA camp provided her starting point. She was accepted and matched with an activist who trained her on how to translate beliefs into actions. Paula said the experience helped her “learned a lot about issues that were going on around the world,” and launched her on a path to make a concrete difference in people’s lives.
One of the requirements to graduate from her high school was to give a speech in front of the entire school. She spoke about bullying in front of many of her peers who had once bullied her. The experience only furthered her interest in stopping bullying and spreading kindness. “After I was done, I didn’t want to stop!”
Bullying remains a rampant problem. Over 70% of young people and over 70% of school staff report that they have witnessed bullying in their schools. Asked for her recommendations on how to best address the problem, Paula highlighted three groups that can play a significant role:
“There are too many bystanders, both kids and adults,” says Paula. She noted that teachers often were present when she was being bullied, but either failed to recognize the behavior as bullying, or just failed to take action. By speaking out against bullying and standing up for those who are being bullied, bystanders can play an active role in stopping harassment. According to research, 57% of bullying instances stop within 10 seconds of a bystander intervening.
“There are schools that have written down in a book, ‘we don’t allow discrimination and harassment of any type,’ however, in practice, that may not always be the case.” She believes that teachers and school administrators need to not only intervene when they suspect bullying, but also take disciplinary steps that will serve as a deterrent to prospective bullies.
“A lot of adults feel that kids will be kids and girls will be girls…that kind of thinking allows this behavior to continue and even thrive,” says Paula. “When we allow it to just be teasing (instead of properly labelling it), that’s how it grows into something bigger.”
Paula continues to work on eliminating bullying through many efforts, including hosting an upcoming event called Speak Up, Stand Up: Becoming a Changemaker. Learn more about the event and show your support here on the event’s GoFundMe page.
More From Our Interview with Paula Orrego:
- “We need to teach our kids that there are people who have gone on to do amazing things in this world and they were bullied.”
- “(A student being bullied) It’s not just damaging to that person, it’s damaging to the entire school environment.”
- “We need to teach teachers not to be afraid to step in there and say this is wrong. Make a stand and say this is not how we do things around here.”
- “I would look at them (teachers) hoping I could somehow transfer a message of “help me, help me,” but I was too scared to say it out loud. They would just stare at me.”