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Professor studies long-term effects of bullying

Date: 8/24/2009

By Natasha Clark

Assistant Managing Editor

When considering the long-term effects of bullying, it is rare to measure them by the bully. But Elizabeth Stassinos, associate professor of criminal justice at Westfield State College (WSC), is spreading the word that when it comes to harassment, no one comes out the victor.

She is a part of an innovative program that promotes adopting strategies to curb bullying through school administrators and staff workshops. These discussions target the origin of bullying and how children are socialized to become violent. Often, she explained, many victims of bullies becomes bullies themselves.

Stassinos began her journey of combating bullying through the program Voices From the Inside, a writing group for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. In 2006, Stassinos worked with Voices From the Inside Advisory Board member Sarah Weinberg and workshop facilitator Millicent Jackson at the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow.

"The three of us would go into the prison and facilitate these writing workshops. It was fun. At the end of each 10-week session, we would create a little booklet. It was great for their rehabilitation and very therapeutic. It was getting you connected with expressing yourself. It sort of gives them a chance, we hope, to see a different side of themselves," Stassinos said.

"That got me interested in how people get into prisons and how they go from being victims to offenders. A lot of people, I felt, I was working with their poverty and life circumstances," she continued.

Later Stassinos was granted a semester research award to do prison work. During that time she began to understand that a lot of people were victims as children and they got more and more aggressive and violent.

An example she used were members of gangs. Many times as youths they don't want to be bullied and want that feeling of belonging, and so they join a gang and, in fact, end up becoming what they hate.

"They become the violent aggressor and they choose violence as the first way to solve problems," she said.

In her research Stassinos said she wanted to look at: "What are the signs in the kids from victim to aggressor? And what is the point where you have to intervene? How can we get to these people way before they end up in prison? How can we do stuff through the high school and college age before they [turn] into a 40-year-old addict in prison?"

She also believes that this is a social problem. "It's bigger than that kid bringing a weapon to school," she explained, illuminating that often when a youth does something like that, it is usually a combination of issues that resulted in his or her behavior.

"It's not usually one factor. We're always looking for one thing. It's usually a bunch of those things together ... a cluster of factors school, family, the education they are or are not getting."

The Internet has also become an easier and more efficient place for bullying to take place.

"It can follow them around in a way that is very permanent. These Web pages and Facebook have an element of permanence. Kids also have access to it on phones and et cetera. You can constantly be reminded of someone's criticism and harassment of you," Stassinos said.

That's why she believes the kind of workshops she offers are so needed.

"I talk to them about theories on how victims become offenders. I'm not an expert in bullying. I am a person interested in the transition from juvenile to adult offender. Bullying is just a very common form of it," Stassinos said.

WSC Director of Counseling Tammy Bringaze, who also has a Ph.D. in educational psychology, does the important work of helping students on the college-level who have to deal with bullying. Peer pressure and organized hazing are just some of the avenues people in this latter group experience.

"I used to work with victims of war, torture and trauma. There have been studies done that showed there is greater much long-term effects on the torturer," Bringaze said.

"One of the major challenges as a college student is that adjustment issue and really trying to find who they are as a young adult," she added. "They are used to being in the environment where they know everyone. Now they are in a whole new environment, new roommate and whole new social group and figuring out who they are and where do they fit in. I think it can be pretty overwhelming at times.

"I think the important thing is we continue to educate people, and when people need assistance that they reach out and talk about their experience to their family, friend or college counselor. That's why we're here. Do not wait until things build," she continued

Stassinos has taught workshops at Southwick-Tolland Regional High School and Center School in Holyoke.

Bringaze has been in her field for more than 10 years, the last three at WSC.

Both are available and interested in bringing their workshops and discussion to schools and colleges throughout the Pioneer Valley. Stassinos can be reached at 572-5731 or, and Bringaze at 572-5790 or