Last month was Bullying Prevention Month, dedicated to shining a light on the issue of bullying that occurs in many corners of the United States and the world. Those who have been bullied, along with advocates, spend the month organizing events to bring awareness about bullying within their schools and communities. Bullied youths, their families, schools, and programs come together during this time to educate others on how to recognize someone who is a victim of bullying and how to deal with the situation.
There are multiple organizations and support groups across the country that, year-round, dedicate their time to providing anti-bullying services to children, families and schools. One of these organizations is the National Association of People Against Bullying, a non-profit organization that focuses on advocating for bullied children and their families across the country, with headquarters in Southern California.
The non-profit organization originated after the death of Daniel Mendez, a 16-year-old boy who took his own life in 2009 due to bullying. In 2012, his parents Anna and Danny Mendez, started the National Association of People Against Bullying and have now been helping, with other team members, victims of bullying for over 10 years.
Along with services such as therapy, the non-profit organization has a prominent program, Cool 2 Be Kind, which first began as an anti-bullying club/chapter that Daniel Mendez’s friends created at his high school to promote bullying awareness. Vitto Mendez, who is the brother of Daniel Mendez, was a Cool 2 Be Kind student leader in high school and became director of the Cool 2 Be Kind program in 2016. His brother’s passing led him to become a youth justice advocate as well.
After its first success as a club in his brother’s school, Vitto Mendez explained how many Cool 2 Be Kind clubs/chapters formed throughout different schools in Los Angeles and other areas.
“The club was very successful, so we got a lot of interest from students and teachers reaching out wanting us to help them start their own chapters at their schools, so that is what I had started doing after graduating high school,” Mendez said.
Mendez shared how racist bullying is part of the organization’s founding purpose after his brother experienced it.
“Part of his bullying was definitely racist in nature and he was called several different Latino slurs that I won’t repeat,” Mendez said. “But he also was bullied for being mixed. He was Mexican and Italian as well so he was called a half-breed and other kinds of racial slurs along those lines.”
In school year 2018-19, about 1.3 million students, ages 12 to 18, were bullied for their race, religion, national origin, disability, gender, or sexual orientation, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
The National Association of People Against Bullying believes in protecting children from experiencing harm regardless of their backgrounds, including Latinos, who experience bullying and depression at rates often higher than their non-Latino peers.
Along with this, the non-profit organization not only focuses on those who are bullied, but those who commit the act as well. Mendez explained how the non-profit organization does not focus on punishing the bullies but getting help for them instead.
“With our advocacy, we are not advocating for bullies to necessarily be more expelled or suspended or something like that to address this issue,” Mendez said. “We are more focused to advocate for greater mental health support and administrative support in schools.”
CALÓ NEWS interviewed Vitto Mendez to discuss bullying in the Latino community, how the mental health of bullied Latinos is affected, and additional information on the Cool 2 Be Kind program and the National Association of People Against Bullying.
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
VITTO MENDEZ, 25, SAN FRANCISCO/SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, YOUTH ADVOCATE AND DIRECTOR OF COOL 2 BE KIND PROGRAM FROM THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF PEOPLE AGAINST BULLYING, HE/HIM, LATINO/ITALIAN
WHAT DIFFERENCES DO YOU SEE IN BULLYING AMONG LATINOS COMPARED TO OTHER MINORITY GROUPS?
Latino students may not want to admit that they are being bullied in the first place. I recently actually did my master’s thesis on anti-bullying state law and I analyzed some data on bullying and with that several different factors. It was interesting because the data showed that Latino students as well as Black students had been bullied on the survey at a lower rate than White students. I don’t think that is necessarily because Latino and Black students are actually being bullied at lower rates because we do know and have seen a lot of kind of racist bullying happening. But I think that it might reflect cultural differences and potentially cultural barriers for Latino students to identify what they are experiencing as bullying and actually labeling it as bullying. This might be due to the idea that you should be able to kind of fight back and handle it yourself. The idea that if you can’t toughen up and take care of yourself in these situations there’s something wrong with you.
I think that can potentially have to do with machismo culture in the Latino community since Latino boys in particular might feel ashamed or emasculated too and that they are being victimized in any way. But in reality, it is still important to be aware and speak up about these issues so kids can get help. That is something that would be really important for Latino families to know is like only just because your kids doesn’t outright say they are being bullied they might still be being bullied. So it is important to kind of look out for the potential warning signs of that and help them get support which should ideally be trauma-informed and mental health support since bullying is really a form of repeated trauma that needs to be taken very seriously.
IS BULLYING AMONG LATINOS ONLY SEEN IN GRADE SCHOOL OR IS IT BEYOND THAT?
We focus on bullying at all kinds of levels from elementary school through high school. We even have a couple of college Cool 2 Be Kind chapters but mainly focus on elementary through high school. I think definitely bullying in terms of Latino students but definitely, all kinds of bullying can continue well past grade school. Grade school like elementary school is maybe one of the places where it is most important to try to address early on so that bullies don’t continue to do that later on. The effects of bullying do get worse the more that it is repeated over time. It is like trauma so the more that it is repeated throughout a person’s life the more harmful that is to them. So it is definitely very important to address and be aware about at all levels. It is not something that kids grow out of one day. They go to middle school or high school or something like that and it is still a dynamic that is present.
HOW HAS BULLYING AFFECTED THE MENTAL HEALTH OF LATINOS?
Bullying has been linked in several studies with PTSD and depression and ultimately suicide as well. Essentially, it is very important to be aware of that because sometimes students may have heightened anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts as a response to bullying and they think that is a personal flaw with them or a personal weakness that they are responding in that way. In reality, it is a very kind of established link and understandable to not lead that that’s a reaction to that traumatic event. That is why I think it is extremely important for people to get help because of those mental health impacts. I don’t know if I’ve seen any data specifically on the magnitude of mental health impacts on the Latino community compared to other ethnic groups but in general, it is shown to have those effects across all youth so it is very important to be aware of.
I mentioned my brother who was bullied and ended his life at a California school. There is also most recently Diego Rivera, who is another young student who more recently died of bullying in 2019 at a Moreno Valley school. So we know this is still a very serious problem that is impacting the Latino community and SoCal and also elsewhere. We actually did recently help a teacher start a Cool 2 Be Kind chapter in an elementary school in that area so this is something that is very important to us and is definitely still impacting the Latino community.
COOL 2 BE KIND ARE STUDENT-LED ANTI-BULLYING CLUBS, CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT IT? ARE THERE CLUBS SPECIFICALLY IN LOS ANGELES SCHOOLS?
These are grassroots student-led clubs that are working to advocate against and prevent bullying and address bullying in their schools and communities. So we support them doing a wide variety of different activities to do that. One of the most important big events that they do is that many of our chapters will organize a blue ribbon week in February during the week of my brother’s birthday and that is a week that they organize in their schools dedicated to anti-bullying awareness, doing different anti-bullying activities. They will often organize assemblies at their schools. And like we talked about how important it is to educate the younger kids, high schools will organize to go speak at assemblies at elementary schools or middle schools because we find that the students really look up to the older students to teach them about bullying. Those are the main kinds of activities the Cool 2 Be Kind chapters will do.
We find too that it is a really helpful model because students are much more likely to listen to their peers essentially than to if a teacher or administrator tells them or someone outside from an organization comes in, gives them a presentation, and tells them not to bully. That is helpful but it is much more effective for students to see that other students are saying “Hey, bullying is an issue, this is what it is, we are not OK with it, and we are a student group that is here to be a support and a safe space to anyone who is being bullied but also to speak up against it.” Another thing that the chapters really emphasize in terms of educating their peers is around speaking up when you see bullying and how important it is not to be a bystander because speaking up when you see bullying can really change the situation. We find bullies are most often doing what they are doing to try to gain a sense of power and control that they kind of lack in other areas of their lives. They feel this power when they can treat someone in this way and no one will say anything about it or will join in and laugh with them. Having someone actually step in and say “Hey that is not cool why are you doing that or like stop doing this,” and then standing up to the bully can really change the situation completely and be very helpful to that person that is being bullied. So that is a movement that our chapters really try to start in their schools. To make students more comfortable to speak up against bullying and to know how important it is.
There are many chapters that we started in the Los Angeles area. Chino High school is a very active Cool 2 Be Kind chapter that has been doing a really good job recently. We have many others that I think are great ones to highlight.
WHAT ARE SOME RESOURCES YOU CAN PROVIDE TO LATINO FAMILIES AND THEIR CHILDREN?
Essentially, since our organization is really focused on providing direct services to bullied youth and their families, people can and should reach out to us if they feel that they can benefit from any of those services. That can include free therapy, free martial arts lessons, free investigative services, starting a Cool 2 Be Kind chapter in their school to speak up against bullying, and we also sometimes can speak at assemblies. Also, a really important one that people sometimes are not as aware of is our direct advocacy services. If a Latino family’s child is being bullied and the situation has been brought up to school administrators but is kind of just continuing to happen repeatedly and going unresolved, they can reach out to us and we will get involved to advocate on their behalf to make sure that their child is being protected.
WHAT IS VALUABLE ABOUT CREATING A NON-PROFIT ORGANIZATION THAT FOCUSES ON ADVOCATING FOR PEOPLE OF ALL ETHNIC BACKGROUNDS WHO HAVE BEEN AFFECTED BY BULLYING AND EDUCATING OTHERS WHO WANT TO PUT AN END TO IT?
This is a very serious issue, and it is very important to be able to name the issue and really provide targeted intervention towards that issue to be able to fully address it. There are a lot of organizations that focus on children’s well-being more generally and will advocate on other issue areas, which is definitely great and very important, but we are there to be a resource for people who are being bullied specifically. Bullying is not always but can very often be racist or homophobic or transphobic in nature, so we really do focus on trying to address all types of bullying. Also, making sure people are aware of those specific types of bullying and we are also sure to train our student leaders to recognize racist bullying and transphobic bullying and those types of bullying specifically as well as just general bullying. It is important to have an organization that definitely helps people of any race that are being bullied, including White children but also that has a racial justice focus and racial justice values since that is part of our founding origin story as well.