Justyce Against Bullying in Schools supports youth, raises awareness of how to deal with bullying

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Northside series.

What does making slime have to do with bullying?

Everything, if you’re a member of the JABS Slime Club.

A dozen members of Justyce Against Bullying in Schools (JABS) met recently at the Community Center of New Village Park, one of four weekly JABS Clubs throughout the Kalamazoo area, to make their monthly slime. Started by Gwendolyn Hooker, longtime Northside resident, JABS, an anti-bullying initiative through H.O.P.E. through Navigation, is a support and activist club for children, which began with eight youth in 2016 and now has over 60 enrolled.

This particular meeting was Slime Day, a theme chosen by the New Village Park group. The other three groups, which meet around the city, including on the Northside, have chosen different themes: Dance and Defense (Original JABS), Sewing into Hope, and Gardening Club. On Slime Day, those who have attended at least two weekly meetings during the month and have been on good behavior at meetings, get to make slime.

Because what’s a little learning without some messy fun?

But before the borax, glue, dish detergent, blue paint and glitter are passed out, the meeting is called to order by Ms. Hope (or Ms. G., as Hooker is sometimes called), who reminds everyone why they come together: to help prevent bullying and learn to protect themselves. Then each of the dozen children says their names and ages and something about their week at school. A few complain about teachers, but most seem to have had a good week, until the last young girl speaks.

“At Sports Day, I had a bully,” she says. “I got my hair pulled and almost got jumped. That hurt me and I was sad.”

Ms. Hope thanks her for sharing, then runs down the JABS’ strategy for dealing with bullying, which all of the members know by heart. D: Defend yourself, which might mean covering up or running. T: Tell an adult in charge, such as a teacher or administrator. T: Tell another teacher or administrator, or a parent, grandparent or trusted friend. And E: Express yourself to let your feelings out. D.T.T.E.

Express, Hooker explains, can mean whatever is meaningful to the child. Some children write it out. Some children dance it out. Some children run it out.

The girl says after she was bullied, she moved away from the other girls, told a teacher, and then told another adult. Now she’s telling JABS. Ms. Hope tells her that she will speak to her after the meeting to get more information to follow up.

“Nobody should violate you personally,” says Ms. Hope. “No one should touch you without your permission and make you feel bad. If they do, it’s up to adults to intervene.”

The little girl nods as other children look on warmly. Now it’s time to make slime.

Blue slime for Blue Shirt Day: World Day of Bullying Prevention

This month, the slime is blue in honor of Oct. 1, World Day of Bullying Prevention, which launches October as National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month.

“Is this washable?” several children with pure blue hands ask. “Yes, it’s washable,” says Ms. Hope, and she laughs, then checks the paint bottle another time just to make sure. 

Some might call a bully “slime,” but Hooker prefers, “confused,” “hurt” and “angry.” But never “tolerated.” She believes in the  model of restorative justice, which approaches bullying incidents as educational opportunities for repairing the harm. Rather than solely focusing on punishment, the practice of restorative justice brings the offender and victim together within a supportive community in order to mediate conflicts.

Many hands make great slime at JABS Slime Club. Photo by Vicky Kettner Justyce Calvert, Hooker’s granddaughter, for whom the club is named, was severely bullied beginning in third grade. Hooker started the club with Justyce and her sister, Jade, when she could find no other organizations in Kalamazoo County that specifically addressed bullying. 

“At the end of the school year, we tried to find organizations to support youth who’ve been bullied,” says Hooker. “Out of (1,700) nonprofits in Kalamazoo County, none were devoted solely to bullying. When we didn’t find any, we started our own.”

And while there may not have been a specific anti-bullying group, Hooker says that in its two short years, JABS has accrued partnerships from across the city, including KYDNET, the Anti-Bully Squad Partners of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Interfaith Neighborhood Homes Network, Northside Recovery and Resource Center, the Youth Ministry of First Congregationalist Church, Lightning Kicks Martial Arts, Gurlz of Color and the Northside Association for Community Development, just to name a few.

Making slime, sewing, gardening, and dancing are some of the expressive components of JABS. The group also provides an opportunity to work cooperatively in a peer group that values kindness and respect.

Are there ever problems at JABS Club? Of course. On this particular JABS Slime Day, one child says something mean to another, who reports it to Ms. Hope. The intervention is swift and consists of an apology and realignment of groups.

Peace is restored. 

Restorative Justice: Starts with our youth

Typical victims of school bullying often include marginalized youth, but most particularly LGBTQ (children of homosexual parents or gay or trans themselves), obese, low-income, homeless and disabled youth, and youth with an incarcerated parent. Often, these cases are handled in schools in ways that are not effective, says Hooker.

For Justyce, Hooker’s granddaughter, the bullying took a violent turn. In third grade, Justyce, then 9, was assaulted on the playground, an attack that resulted in two black eyes and a fractured nose. 

A lot of sleuthing, meeting with school officials, writing letters, and speaking to Justyce, didn’t uncover the reasons for the bullying, says Hooker.

“Why are these boys just picking her out?” Hooker says she wanted to know. “And finally, after weeks, she said why.”

Justyce’s mother is gay. “Justyce was reluctant to say something because she didn’t want to hurt her mother,” Hooker says.

Hooker saw an opportunity to support her granddaughter and to stand up for justice in a way that will likely impact these youth for years to come.

“She was upset and hurt that someone would do that,” Hooker says of Justyce. “But by the time school started in September, she bounced back. The kid ended up at the same school, but Justyce was adamant. 'This is my school. I’m not going to let anybody intimidate or bully me into not going there.'”

Justyce felt empathy for the boy who had bullied her, Hooker says. “Justyce says, he probably has his own problems going on. She started having a heart, which softened our hearts.”

Hooker sought to employ the Restorative Justice model through the schools. “How do we help kids so they don’t carry all that anger and pain?”

Unfortunately, the bullying persisted, and after frequent trips to the school, Hooker says, Justyce’s mother decided to have her daughter switch districts. Justyce now attends Comstock Public Schools. 

JABS has sponsored a zero tolerance policy on bullying for Comstock Public Schools. “There has to be more than a policy,” says Hooker. “You have to address the bullying situation in ways that are equitable.”

Hooker says that will mean making changes at the policy level, while supporting those who are adversely impacted by bullying and teaching them ways to empower themselves.

Justyce likes JABS, she says, because “more people interact with each other. People get along. They don’t fuss or argue about things.” She also says she likes spreading the word about bullying at school because the result is fewer people become bullies. “When people get bullied, they know to go tell someone.”

Sticking your hands into a bunch of gooey, blue, sparkly, bubbly mush, and stretching, twisting and kneading it with a group of friends until it turns to slime, can be good therapy. And it certainly makes slimers smile.

Hooker wears a lot of hats, and one of her favorites is Northside neighbor

When you need something done, call on a busy person, it is frequently said. And Gwendolyn Hooker is definitely busy, as Branch Membership Chairperson of the Metropolitan Kalamazoo National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an organizer of Classic Kids, a summer-preparation event in the spring sponsored by Youth Unlimited, and as the founder and director of her own non-profit, Northside Recovery and Resource Center. If there is a service organization or social justice event on the Northside, or even in Kalamazoo, you’re likely to find Hooker there, doing her part.

“I had no idea JABS was going to turn into such a needed thing,” says Hooker. “I grew up with bullying in some form or another. I started really thinking about Justyce’s story in terms of my own story. My dad was in prison for most of my life as a kid, and he still is. So I was that person whose parent was in jail.

“Back when I was growing up, single parenting wasn’t that popular. I was the person who kind of stood out and I got bullied for that.”

She says that bullying awareness is especially necessary for Kalamazoo, which has the highest rate of homelessness students in the state. Also, Michigan has been ranked as first in the nation for bullying in 2016 by The Association for Psychological Science recently found that those who are bullies, victims or both “are more likely to experience poverty, academic failure and job termination in their adulthood than those who were neither,” in addition to substance abuse and crime.

“A lot of times people don’t realize they are being bullied,” says Hooker. “Sometimes bullying can be so subtle.”

As an active resident of the Northside, Hooker loves her neighborhood. “I love the people,” says Hooker. “It’s diverse. It’s inclusive. I love living among people who are authentic and real. If they need help, they’ll ask you.”

Hooker is happy to lend a hand.

“You have to invest in the place you live, work and play. If everyone invested in where they lived, they would profit.”

And Hooker is committed to continuing to invest, especially when it comes to education and equity.

“This community, yes, it has some areas that it has to work on, definitely,” says Hooker of the Northside. “But it has a lot of things that it’s really good at. Anything that has to do with youth, they really rally and come out with their guns blazing, so to speak, to give that support to youth, especially those who are marginalized and homeless.

“I just can’t say enough how much the community has really rallied around JABS,” says Hooker.

And Justyce? Well, she hasn’t been bullied at school in a while, Justyce says. But if it happens, thanks to her grandmother and the support of JABS, she’ll be ready to defend herself, tell a teacher or administrator, tell another teacher, principal or trusted adult, and dance or slime it out among friends.

JABS Slime Club members hold up their slimes, none of which are exactly alike. Photo by Vicky Kettner
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Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.