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Kelly Smith, Published December 21 2008

Girl Power: Program fights back against girl bullying

Mention the movie “Mean Girls” to elementary school girls, and they light up.

But the issues the film’s high school characters deal with – female bullying at its worst – are now faced by elementary school girls everywhere.

“I think that it’s happening younger and younger,” counselor Sarah Klimek said, adding that she heard first-graders refer to themselves as “the plastics” from the film. “They see it, and they pick up on it.”

Klimek’s weekly after-school program at Fargo’s Kennedy Elementary is one program that seeks to combat a “sneaky” female bullying culture – a culture characterized by excluding others and gossiping that continues long into adulthood.

A few years ago, she started Girl Power – a free, hourlong, 18-week program teaching girls how to handle “relational aggression” – the female-dominated taunting centered on excluding relationships or teasing about appearances.

“We see it more in middle school, but I think it starts younger and younger,” Klimek said.

Between choir and Girl Scouts, this year’s more than two dozen girls – the largest turnout yet – have simple reasons for sticking around school after the bell rings.

“This after-school group helps you make more friends,” said 10-year-old Cory Duffield. “It helps to have a group that you trust (and) you can come talk to when you have a problem.

“And there’s no boys to ruin it,” the fourth-grader added. “That’s the best part.”

As they worked on crafts, a group of four of her classmates discussed the bullying issues three of the four said they’ve dealt with.

“Boys tackle each other and stuff,” explained 10-year-old Abigail Likness. “And girls do it secretly, with words.”

They’ve heard it all – you’re ugly, you’re fat, you have an ugly outfit. Already at their ages, they’re feeling the pressure to act, dress and talk certain ways.

To be a “cool” fourth-grader isn’t easy. They rattle off requirements – you have to be funny and chase boys – though, not too much or others will think you like them. You have to have pretty hair, makeup, brand-name clothes.

“Some girls think they’re really cool to wear makeup,” said 9-year-old Maryn Berg.

“But it just makes them look weird,” Likness said.

So instead, through this program, the girls are learning that it’s OK to just be themselves. They’re learning how to be a better friend and have better self-esteem.

They’re valuable lessons Klimek hopes are a proactive attack on the commonplace culture of female bullying –helping today’s budding female role models change it for the future.

“I just feel like our kids are growing up so fast these days,” said Maryn’s mom, Jenny Berg. “I wish I would have had something like it when I was younger.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515