Operation Respect uses music to heal youth violence

Peter Yarrow, the legendary American folk singer, is now launching a new initiative designed to address child and youth violence in schools.

Bullying initiative 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bullying initiative 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Chances are most people have been bullied at school or experienced some form of physical or mental violence or abuse. It’s a world-wide phenomenon that has been addressed primarily by educators.
A new initiative designed to address child and youth violence in schools has been launched in Israel that will meld together health care professionals with educators in order to synergize help not just for the victims of bullies, but for the bullies themselves.
“What we do is bring love and inspiration, music and academic excellence in terms of the pedagogy of emotional and social development to schools; and that combination is magical,” said Peter Yarrow, the legendary American folk singer and civil rights activist who sang with Paul Stookey and the late Mary Travers in the famed trio Peter, Paul and Mary; and who is the driving force behind Operation Respect.
Before a crowd of over 200 education and health experts assembled at Israel’s Sheba Hospital, the bespectacled Yarrow, now 72, urged everyone to join him as he sang his signature song, Puff the Magic Dragon. Then, flanked by a chorus of young Jewish and Arabs students, and joined by Israeli superstar David Broza, he led the ensemble in a three-language (English, Hebrew and Arabic) rendition of Don’t Laugh at Me, the anthem for Operation Respect and a song Yarrow said “changed my life.”
“When you have an unusual idea, a crazy idea, a revolutionary idea, you’ve got to be crazy and unusual and revolutionary. This is Peter Yarrow,” explained Broza.
Yarrow came to Israel to spread the word of his Operation Respect program, which he co-founded and which aims to increase understanding and tolerance among schoolchildren by promoting civility and conflict resolution. It has been implemented in more than 22,000 American schools and in several other countries since it was established a decade ago.
With help from the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, Yarrow brought Operation Respect to Israel in 2009. What began as a pilot program in four schools has now expanded to 25 in both Jewish and Arab Israeli towns.
“They used to beat me up. I’m afraid to go to school and I’m scared they’ll hit me for no reason,” said Adir, a fifth-grader from Lod, whose school was one of the first in Israel to implement Operation Respect.
Ratten Al-Zinati, a social activist from Lod told the conference that violence among youth is three times as prevalent in Arab as in Jewish schools. 
“I think this is extremely positive that Americans can help bring [Operation Respect] not only to Israel but around the world. This is a universal problem -- a problem of tolerance and respect among kids -- and that is what this program gets at,” said Ambassador James B. Cunningham, the American envoy to Israel. 
Yarrow and his Operation Respect co-founder, Dr. Charlotte Frank, also plan to introduce the project into Palestinian schools.
Frank told The Media Line that experience has shown that bullying and abuse is not just confined to schools, but its affects were also being seen by health and medical professionals.
“Whenever you have an abusive child it is the doctors who see that. There is something that happens to the kids. They are physically abused,” Frank says.
Up until now, addressing bullying was confined to the realm of educators. But world-renowned neurologist Dr. Alejandro Berenstein, an Operation Respect board member, saw a role for medical science to play. He told The Media Line that combining health care and educational professionals to address bullying had never been done before.
“We hope that here in Israel we can put together what will become a small experiment for the world to see and hopefully we can export this ability to use these two disciplines … to many societies in the world,” Berenstein said. 
The symposium at Sheba Medical Center provided experts from the respective disciplines a first opportunity to meet and explore how the two sciences could work together to address school and youth violence. Prof. Daniel Stein, one of the presenters, explained that medicine typically relates to treatment while schools deal with prevention. “We can’t treat all of the problems, but we can identify a population that we can treat.”
Yarrow explained that help needs to be addressed to both the victim and the bully.
“If you combine it, you can reach the family of a victim and a perpetrator. You can reach their families, schools and communities and you can prevent it more dramatically and you can have compassion for both the perpetrator and the victim,” according to Yarrow.
Not surprising given the program’s genesis from a song and Yarrow’s involvement, the musical element is a key component of the curriculum. Broza explained that, “Music heals. There’s a chemical reaction [with music]. I know it from my personal experience playing in hospitals; and playing in wartime in bomb shelters with people in stress. It heals on the performers’ end and on the listeners’ end.”
Frank added that she saw Israel becoming the “Mecca” for the world to come to in order to learn how health and educational professionals can combine to address the problem.
The declared aim of Operation Respect is to “promote the infusion of character education and social and emotional learning principles into school curricula.”
It envisions a learning climate where children can develop without fear of bullying, ridicule and violence. Yarrow frequently refers to a dramatic statistic that at least 160,000 American school children stay home every day because of their fears of being bullied in the classroom or school yard.
Since Operation Respect’s inception, more than 150,000 copies of the program have been distributed to educators through the assistance of the McGraw-Hill publishing company, where Frank serves as a senior vice president.
The symposium in Israel culminated with the formation of a team of health and educational professionals who will work in tandem to explore ways of addressing school violence and abuse world-wide.
“That’s what the task force will provide,” says Yarrow. “It will provide a next step series, a strategic plan to show that there is a way to intelligently combine health care and educational strategies to reduce violence.”
Asked by The Media Line why he chose Israel to launch this endeavor, Yarrow had a quick answer.
“I’m Jewish. I’m here. I am moved by Israel. I am pained by its problems. If I’m going to be loyal to my country, I am loyal to all of humanity but I want to march in civil rights. If I am Jewish, I am particularly sensitive to the challenges of Israel on behalf of Jews and the Arabic population, too. And I believe that if we implement these programs it will help the heart of Israel; it will help the heart of the future generation to find mechanisms to create peace within their lives; within their relationships between each other; and  in relationship to people who, hopefully, will then be viewed as former adversaries,” he said.