Saturday, April 10, 2010

Bullying in Schools

On the rare occasions when bullying in schools leads to tragedy, we get a momentary flurry of activity - calls for stronger anti-bullying laws or policies. Then, for the most part, its back to business as usual. The Onion touched on this after Columbine, a tragedy at a school with a serious bullying problem, but that appears to be wrongly attributed to bullying (and the perps in which engaged in bullying):
Just like at any other school, the computer geeks are mocked, the economically disadvantaged kids are barely acknowledged, and the chess-club, yearbook and debate-team members are universally reviled. While these traditions are nothing new, from now on they will be much easier to preserve, thanks to the high-tech, draconian security measures that now dominate Columbine life....

Thus far, the beefed-up security measures have done wonders to restore the self-esteem of Columbine's jocks, who say they feel safer shunning, berating, belittling and picking on those who are different from themselves than ever before. And the jocks are doing their part to keep the untouchables in line, more than doubling the number of swirlies, noogies and wedgies doled out to Columbine's many outcasts since last year.

Happily, the many efforts to protect Columbine's jocks seem to be working. In fact, schools across the country have begun to pick up on the Columbine model, with many districts imposing measures even more stern than those at Columbine itself. These include mandatory dress codes, transparent book bags that are subject to random search, metal detectors, electronic handprint-identification systems and automatic expulsion of anyone who goes out of his or her way to "separate themselves socially" from classmates or "break the status quo."
That's a parodic look at behavior that is par for the course for most of this nation's schools. But even that is too narrow a look at bullying behavior. You can find bullying behavior within the "chess-club, yearbook and debate-team", or pretty much any other group context. Sometimes it's transitory, sometimes it's not. But often it's ignored, tolerated, or even encouraged by teachers and school administrators.

When we think of bullies, we often look straight to the stereotype of the angry, sullen, misfit loner who beats up kids for lunch money. When I was in ninth grade we had a kid like that at the school... I'm not sure if he ever stole lunch money, but he was big, he was miserable, and he was happy to share his misery with others. He disappeared from school until I was a senior, then reappeared as a tenth grade student. I found out, one way or another, that he had been incarcerated for much of the interim. I didn't have enough contact with him to know whether his experiences transformed him.

But in a sense, that type of bully is the easiest to deal with. No, not if he's sucker punching you in gym class, but in terms of psychic trauma. Nobody defends him, nobody joins him. If you can duck him, he's irrelevant. The more dangerous variant works in packs - a more social bully who has a number of tag-alongs. Think Jimbo, Dolph and Kearney on the Simpsons (Nelson can work with them, or work alone). Their pack behavior is not atypical of pack animals - identify somebody who appears to weak to put up much of a fight, isolate their prey, attack. These bullies are quite easily identified by school administrators who, in many cases, seem to ignore them. Perhaps that's because their typical targets don't matter much to administrators?

But when you look at the two instances of bullying that have received significant press coverage, the bullying of Phoebe Prince and the bullying of Constance McMillen, you're not going to find the bullies I just discussed. In the case of Pheobe Prince, the bullying appears to have been that described in The Onion - the cool kids turning on a peer, then ostracizing and hounding her. In the case of Constance McMillen, it appears that the bullying and ostracisim - the rejection of a teen due to her sexuality - was acceptable within the student body, the faculty, school administrators, and among parents. She and the special needs students (also special targets for bullying at Columbine) weren't worthy.

This piece from the AP is remarkably clueless:
Parents might not realize that the stereotypical bully of generations past — a swaggering schoolyard lout, low on self-esteem, quick to lash out, easy to identify — has become as anachronistic as the blackboard at many schools.

Educational psychologists describe a new kind of bullying. The perpetrators are attractive, athletic and academically accomplished — and comfortable enough around adults to know what they can and can't get away with, in school and online.

These bullies are so subtle and cunning it's hard for school staff to know if what looks like bullying really is, and what to do about it. "Some of it is so under the radar that without training, you can't see what's in front of you," says Marlene Snyder, a Clemson University expert on bullying.
Yeah, subtle. So subtle that it's been the subject of movies like "Revenge of the Nerds", "Lucas", "Heathers" or "Mean Girls" for generations. Snyder may have a point that some of their behaviors are not immediately identifiable as bullying, but the author of the piece is out to lunch.

Going back to something I touched on before, the victims of concerted bullying don't typically draw much concern from school administrators. That can be because they're different and the school administrators sympathize with the bullies, as appears to be the case with Ms. McMillen. But if we move from transitory bullying, something most kids experience at one time or another, into situations of chronic or repeated bullying, you'll usually find a pattern of reactions or behaviors that make it easy to blame the victim. The child is hypersensitive. The child responded to the bullying by calling the other kids names, then got upset. The child withdraws. "They bring it on themselves." Sometimes the kid is targeted because he identifies as gay, or is perceived as gay - if that type of intolerance is acceptable within the school, it's really hard for the kid to reshape his reaction to end the bullying.

More accurately, they show pain. Psychic pain. They don't have good defense mechanisms that allow them to either shrug off the attack or hide their hurt. If you can shrug off the attack, give as good as you get, hide your pain, you're not a rewarding target. (This is true for physical bullying as well - a kid who doesn't overreact to pain and hits back effectively isn't a good target; bullies will seek weaker prey.) A display of emotional pain is blood in the water for bullies. It's possible to teach kids to resist bullying, but these kids' parents are usually (no offense) clueless (or worse) and school administrators, again, indifferent.

Again, it's not just kids. How did Pink Floyd put it? "When we grew up and went to school, there were certain teachers who would hurt the children anyway they could". That's perhaps a good child's-eye view of the bullying teacher, and yes, there are teachers who inflict pain indiscriminately. But teachers who are bullies are adult versions of the kids I've been talking about, although they'll typically pick their prey differently and bully their kids by less obvious means. I recall a couple of my gym teachers from high school, one of whom was the same bullying jock he had been during his own teen years, and the other of whom viewed bullying as a natural rite of passage - something you put up with until you have a growth spurt or graduate. No big deal. Time for dodgeball!

I recall the second teacher's lecture about fighting - it's not that it's a big deal to get in fights, but things can get out of control and somebody might get kicked in the head or break a limb, so don't do it. This was before schools widely implemented "zero tolerance" policies on fighting; his approach might be deemed the "tolerance" approach. He was the school's front line person for addressing fights, ahead or instead of the vice principal, and I don't recall anybody ever facing a serious consequence.

I expect that the parents of the kids from the Phoebe Prince case see their kids as "good kids" - jock and cheerleader types, "leaders", popular.... Odds are that their parents value success in the high school social scene and implicitly, perhaps explicitly, send the message that their form of bullying is simply part of the social order. The reaction to the case is seen as disproportionate to the crime. But if the reaction to similar bullying around the country is used as the measure, the parents have a point - the kids are being vilified and prosecuted because of the outcome of their bullying, while thousands upon thousands of kids around the country are "getting away with" the same thing.

If we're serious about eliminating bullying in schools, it needs to start from the top down. Administrators who turned a blind eye to the bullying of Constance McMillen should face consequences - perhaps career-ending consequences. If they don't, you'll know exactly how seriously their school districts take bullying.

In other schools, I'm not going to call for "zero tolerance" of bullying because I don't think that's achievable - and I expect it would be abused. A kid who is hounded until he lashes out should not be treated equally to the kids who do the hounding (and no, I'm not talking Columbine here - I'm talking about a normal reaction). A child who is upset with a friend and pulls the "You're not my friend" routine or attempts to get others to ostracize her "former" friend, should be viewed in an age-appropriate light. You can deal with that range of behaviors by establishing a culture of kindness within a school - setting a range for what's appropriate in interacting with other kids, then interceding and correcting behaviors when the rule is violated. And you can also teach kids from an early age how to respond to bullying behavior, and how to bring in an adult when necessary. And school administrators need to allow for serious sanction, to the extent of placement in 'alternative' schools, of even "cool" and "popular" kids who get off on bullying kids from outside of their social circle. Even if they're star athletes.

To put an end to the worst of bullying, teachers and school administrators need to be 100% on board with the new ethos. There is room for a "zero tolerance" policy toward teachers who turn a blind eye toward bullying behavior, and ample cause for such a policy toward teachers who engage in bullying.

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