Power of words: Attorneys help kids define the line between jokes and bullying

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As a child, Allegheny County Bar Association Media Relations director Tom Loftus never meant to hurt his brother's feelings. He wasn't the ringleader of the crew making fun of his brother's deafness, or even an active participant in the conversation. He just stood by silently while his friends cracked jokes about the disability.

After his mother found out, however, Mr. Loftus and his friends were taught a lesson to make them think twice about what they considered to be a laughing matter.

"What she did was made us sit in front of the TV for four hours with the sound turned off just so we could learn what my brother felt like," he said.

Mr. Loftus said this story exemplifies the empathy he hopes to spark in elementary students when he meets with them for the bar association's "This is a Joke -- Making Fun of Others is Not" program. Created seven years ago to supplement diversity programs that the bar association conducts for high school students and older adults, the program sends attorneys to local elementary schools to discuss what types of jokes are offensive and how those jokes affect people who are targeted.

Working off a lesson plan created with the help of Duquesne University's psychology and education departments, the program also uses "That is No Joke," a children's book written by Mr. Loftus and edited by ACBA attorney Jennifer Pulice, to highlight the teachings.

The bar association decided to approach the topic through jokes because they realized that many young children tell jokes in an effort to fit in without realizing their potential cruelty.

"Counselors are telling us that young kids learn early on that they can make people laugh by telling jokes, and that there's a fine line between a certain age when those jokes become discriminatory or are making fun of other kids in the class," said Mr. Loftus.

"We thought, hey, get in there early, teach the kids the difference between a good joke and a bad joke, and maybe we can head off some of the bullying down the road."

Each session starts with students writing down jokes so that attorneys can separate the good gags from the bad, an exercise that usually results in more than half of the jokes being tossed for being inappropriate, according to Mr. Loftus. Among the most common offenses were blond jokes, jokes denigrating someone's religion and jokes making fun of someone's appearance.

"It'll say something like, 'Why doesn't anyone sit by Carla at lunch,' and it will be followed by something about her physical characteristics," said Mr. Loftus.

Joke writing is followed by a testimony from attorneys about how bad jokes and bullying has affected them or someone close to them.

Ms. Pulice, who is also editor of The Lawyers Journal, said her tale of how students rejected a friend from another country because she was "different" gives kids a chance to not only see how jokes affect others, but an opportunity to talk about jokes that have hurt them over the years.

"I think that once the attorney volunteer tells their story, they feel really comfortable opening up and explaining why they've been bullied as well," she said. "I think at first they're a little bit unsure about why we're here, but once they hear that we've been bullied or can share a story of someone else we knew being bullied, they can really relate to us and at that point it's kind of an open conversation."

The testimonies, while often heart wrenching, provide a safe space for students to express themselves to classmates who might have laughed their concerns off in other settings.

In some cases, students show remorse after hearing they've hurt someone, said Ms. Pulice. She noted a male student who was picked on for his interest in theater arts who received a standing ovation following his testimony.

"The classmates were actually applauding and smiling and patting him on the back, saying, 'Good job on sharing that story. We're really proud of you,' " she said.

The program kicked off its eighth year this month.

Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.


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