SAN JOSE -- Now that schools, parents and even pop stars are paying plenty of attention to the problem of bullying, it still helps for fearful kids to hear advice from older kids who know about vicious verbal and physical attacks firsthand.

"They will listen to parents only so much," said Brett Solomon, a member of the San Jose chapter of Jack and Jill of America, a largely African-American organization devoted to youth issues. "We thought it would be a good idea for kids to hear it from kids, too."

Solomon organized one of the group's trademark "cupcakes and conversation" forums Sunday afternoon at a downtown union hall attended by about 30 middle school students and their concerned parents. The kids listened to advice from five high school seniors, most of them from the private Harker School in San Jose, who spoke candidly and sometimes poignantly about failing to stop the bullying of others. One of them had even been both a victim and a bully.

Eric Swenson, now a senior, said some boys in elementary school had taunted him incessantly by giving him a girlish name. They substituted it into "Eleanor Rigby," a Beatles song about lonely death, to torment him.


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"They sang that song day after day," Swenson said. A martial arts student at the time, he said he could have beaten them up if he wanted, but that would have gotten him into more trouble than it was worth. "The only way I could deal with it was with something physical, but that was not an option."

Instead, Swenson told his parents, but even they gave conflicting responses. Eventually, the bullying ended, but Swenson then found himself on the other side of the issue. In a fencing class, he found himself, along with two other students, bullying a hapless classmate. He later apologized to the victim, but to this day, he still feels shame and guilt.

"The hard part of that is I didn't realize it at the time," Swenson said.

Celebrity concern

Juvenile bullying has been dragged out into the glare of media attention in recent years by a variety of groups, students and prominent individuals, including Michelle Obama and mega pop star Lady Gaga. The Jack and Jill organization saw it appear on its radar screen as long as five years ago, said San Jose chapter president Shaw Alexander.

"We're a parents group," said Alexander, " so we heard from our kids what was happening at school."

The group decided to discuss the problem at one of its trademark "cupcakes and conversation" forums. It brought along dozens of frosted, homemade confections and invited students from Harker who had already written a "Tween to Teen" question-and-answer paper on bullying for younger kids. "Tweens" are middle schoolers who stand between being children and teens in what is known to be a very difficult period of youth adjustment and growth.

Jenny Chen, a senior, described the sorrow she felt watching and hearing constant bullying of an overweight girl at her middle school.

"Even now I regret not having taken action against this," Chen said, with more than a touch of shame. She urged the youths to talk to bullying victims, console them and help them find a constructive end to the problem without anger or violence.

Plenty of details

After the panel discussion, the teenagers led smaller discussion groups for the middle school students. In one group of a dozen, none of the younger kids who spoke up admitted to being a victim of bullying, but they said they knew plenty of victims.

One boy described how a group of bigger boys at his school punch smaller boys in their stomachs or chests during games at recess, cleverly making the beatings look nothing worse than playful, boys-will-be-boys rough-and-tumble. The boy wanted to complain but was afraid he would be forever tagged as a "tattletale."

One of the teen panelists, Sydnie Jones of Archbishop Mitty High in San Jose, advised him to report the bullying calmly and with as many convincing details as he could to teachers.

"This is what's going on," Jones said, explaining how the boy should start his report. "It's been happening for a while, and this is how they do it."

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767.