Newry student's anti-bullying website to help victims
Support from her family and school got Anita through a year-long campaign of hate and now she runs a website to help other victims
You could never describe inspirational student Anita Dennison as a victim and yet when she was just 16 she endured a relentless year long hate campaign by anonymous cyberbullies.
Support from her family and school got her through what were horrific months suffering at the hands of faceless tormentors and inspired Anita to become a leading campaigner in the field of anti-bullying.
The 18-year-old from Bessbrook, near Newry, runs her own anti-bullying website and Twitter campaign through which she not only helps other victims of bullying but inspires and advises parents and adults alike.
She is passionate about beating bullying not just in the school playground and online but for adults too who experience it in the workplace.
And, as more than 800 schools and youth groups across Northern Ireland get ready to take part in this year’s Anti-Bullying Week next week, she is leading the way in support of the many initiatives organised across the province to mark this important annual campaign.
Under the theme ‘Together we will make a difference — End Bullying Now’, the week will run from Monday to Friday, November 17–21.
With a wise head which belies her young age Anita explains why Anti-Bullying Week is such an important week in the school calendar: "I believe that every school, and every student, should take a stand against bullying. We all have the right to an education that doesn't involve taunting, name-calling or any form of bullying.
"We have the right to be included and accepted for our differences, not turned away and judged for them.
"While bullying is an issue we must tackle all year round, Anti-Bullying Week gives us the opportunity to really focus on what we all can do, together, to make bullying stop.
"Here at St Paul's, I am very proud to say that we promote inclusion and equality for all, which is clearly shown in the effective stance that we take against bullying.
"St Paul's is a school which builds the confidence of students instead of bringing them down and will do everything in its power to ensure all pupils are confident, happy and, above all, safe."
She adds: "Anti-Bullying Week is very important to me, as not only does it promote awareness about all sorts of bullying but it gives young people, like myself, a chance to actively make a difference within our schools and communities - it gives us the confidence to help others."
Anita is an anti-bullying ambassador for her school and will play an active role in activities throughout next week. Also, as an anti-bullying mentor she has delivered workshops to Year 8 pupils in St Paul's with the help of Lee Kane of the Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum (NIABF).
Her passion for inspiring people to help stamp out bullying only came to the fore when her school ran a competition two years ago to mark Anti-Bullying Week.
Anita entered her Twitter campaign and the school was so impressed by her commitment that they appointed her anti-bullying ambassador.
St Paul's head of pastoral care, Christine Fearon, sums up the impact of Anita's work. "She is very resilient and a high-achieving young woman," she says.
"It is remarkable that she has taken the initiative herself to launch an anti-bullying campaign. She is a great girl who has very much inspired not just her peers but also the staff in the school. She is an excellent role model."
Anita is currently studying for A-levels in Irish, French and Religion and plans to continue her Irish studies at university to become a teacher.
She lives in Bessbrook with her parents, Sinead (49) and Michael (52), who are retired, and her older brother Steven (23), who is a joiner.
She is conscious of using this opportunity to promote a positive message on anti-bullying and for that reason is reticent about dwelling on her own experience.
She was just 16 when she was singled out by cyberbullies who callously launched a campaign of hate against her lasting a year. Anita never did find out who set up the anonymous accounts on Facebook which were then used to post taunts about her. Neither to this day does she know why she was singled out for the abuse.
"I had amazing support and it did come to an end," she says. "It started out of nowhere with people setting up fake accounts and writing about me online.
"School was just amazing and they got it wiped out. They were so supportive and were there for me 24-7, along with my family.
"It wasn't school-related; I don't know what started it. It took the form mostly of name calling and general taunting. It made me feel really down about myself.
"It's strange but you have to read it. I just felt I needed to go online and read it so that I would know about it and could delete it and block it.
"It affects your self-esteem and you start to doubt yourself, even though what they are saying isn't true.
"It got so bad that I wanted to shut down my Facebook account. Not knowing who they were was difficult and I had to stop myself from being paranoid and looking at everybody, wondering if it was them who were doing it.
"It made me want to try and make a difference and help victims as well as inspire young people to lend a hand and help others.
"It's not just young people, sadly, but adults too experience bullying in the workplace.
"Now I look back at it positively because if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be so passionate about helping others who may be suffering with bullying."
The main aim of her campaign, which has 3,000 followers on Twitter, is to reassure victims of bullying that they are not alone.
She encourages them to speak to someone - if not family and friends then a supportive group such as Childline or Lifeline.
Every day she takes time to post a positive message on Twitter in an attempt to lift the spirits of anyone who may be struggling with abuse. She believes simple acts of kindness like smiling at someone or holding a door open can impact tremendously on a person's self-esteem.
She also counsels when asked although she is quick to point out that she is not a professional and in her own words: "I just try and advise people as best I can."
"It's important people realise they are not alone. There are more than seven billion people in the world yet many of us believe that we have no support," she says.
"When people are bullied they believe what is being said about them and they use these opinions to define themselves.
"People need to understand that they are not defined by that comment on the corridor or on Facebook or that embarrassing photo on Instagram that someone may have posted. They are defined by the good that they say and do, and more importantly they should define themselves."
The popularity of her Twitter campaign has taken her by surprise and for Anita it is all about getting the message through to victims that there is a life outside of the dark place which bullying places them in, as she says: "I know because I've been there and you have to have hope and know there is a bright future ahead for you."
The success of her Twitter campaign is just the start for Anita. Already she has plans when she goes to university next year to tour as many primary schools as she can delivering her message on anti-bullying.
She simply hopes to persuade children that they have the power to take a stand against bullying and help others who are victims.
She is also proud of the anti-bullying stance St Paul's has taken: "I don't think any other school is leading the way like St Paul's is.
"They bring confidence to students each and every day by giving them support and the opportunity to embrace their individuality and they have inspired me."
And her message to victims is: "Realising what our purpose is in life is a very challenging thing for many people of any age and some go through life never knowing, but take a few moments and think of all the great things in your life and use them; you have the purpose to be you. Nobody else can be you. At the end of the day all the positives in your life are what will truly matter and all the negativity will just be background noise."
Lee Kane, regional anti-bullying co-ordinator for NIABF, coordinators of Anti-Bullying Week, paid tribute to Anita and urged people to get behind the campaign.
"The theme of Anti-Bullying Week 2014 calls on everyone, of all ages, to think about what role they can play in taking a stand against all forms of bullying behaviour," he says.
"That could be speaking up if you hear racist, sectarian, disablist or homophobic language being used, reporting abuse you witness on a social network website, or even just making sure your friends know they can talk to you if they are worried about bullying.
"Anita has set an excellent example for her peers, and I applaud the work that she has done to raise awareness of bullying in her school, her community and online.
"She has committed to speaking out against all forms of bullying and to encouraging her friends to do the same.
"Her positive messages on social networks, her leadership within her school and her visible campaigning in her community have sent a clear message that bullying is not acceptable.
"We hope that young people across Northern Ireland will be inspired by Anita's story, to think about what they can do to end bullying now!"
- Follow Anita's Twitter campaign at @bully_don't and check out her website at Be-a-friend-not-a-bully.webs.com
Name calling and vile gestures
The most recent major study into bullying in Northern Ireland — The Annual Bullying Survey 2014 — asked pupils about their experiences of bullying in the past couple of months before being surveyed.
It found that the most common form of bullying for pupils in both Year 6 and Year 9 was:
- “I was called mean names, was made fun of or teased in a hurtful way.” — 42% Year 6, 36% Year 9
For pupils in Year 6 this was followed by:
- “Other pupils left me out of things on purpose, left me out of their group of friends or completely ignored me.” — 36%
- “I was bullied with mean names, comments or rude gestures” — 35%
For pupils in Year 9 this was followed by:
- “Other pupils told lies or spread false rumours about me and tried to make others dislike me” — 30%
- “Other pupils left me out of things on purpose, left me out of their group of friends and completely ignored me” — 26%
Ruan tackles the bullies
- Anti-Bullying Week is co-ordinated by the Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum and is supported by Translink. NIABF is an inter-agency group funded by the Department of Education and hosted by the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) NI
- Throughout the week schools and community groups will organise poster displays, themed assemblies, workshops and project activities to engage young people in understanding their role and responsibility in tackling bullying
- There will also be a special awards ceremony in Belfast next Tuesday, November 18, to celebrate this year’s anti-bullying art and creative writing competition. The competition, which attracted an unprecedented 4,014 entries, provides a channel for individuals to tell a story or convey their views on how bullying should be tackled
- Following a recent workshop programme delivered in partnership with representatives from Ulster Rugby, Ulster GAA and the Irish FA under the title Tackle Bullying Now, aimed at protecting both young people and volunteers, Ulster Rugby will be highlighting Anti-Bullying Week during their match with the Ospreys on Friday, November 21
- Ulster stars Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Jackson and Franco van der Merwe recently made their pledge to tackle all forms of bullying and will be encouraging fans to do the same through the match programme
- To find out more about Anti-Bullying Week, visit www.endbullying.org.uk
Anita wrote the following poem to reflect the anxiety she felt while she was being bullied
Why, I ask
I wear this mask
For them to see
If I’m happy, let me be
Come at me
Wound me like swords
If only they would
That each night
Those tears I tried to hide
Through a smile … oh why