A rash of suicides in high schools and on college campuses of kids tormented for their sexual orientation or simply for being different bought to light an ugly little secret about the lives of kids and teens today, showcased how bullying has changed since the days of insults in the school yard, galvanizing a nation to action; from precedent setting court cases to hard line legislation making bullying a crime punishable under the law, a jail-able offence, we have endeavored to crack down on the torment of others. But to what end; is all this legislation, making it a criminal behavior, forcing schools to have action plans to deal with bullying creating a safer physical, emotional environment for kids, teens, college students? Is it providing them with more support, more places to turn, more resources; is it making them feel less like killing themselves? Are the current programs teaching empathy, fostering a kinder, gentler world; the saddening answer is a resounding no. Instead current actions meant to address bullying, meant as a deterrent to behavior has only served to create more criminals; school plans show a complete lack of understanding of the components that make up bullying, center around punishment rather than problem solving, molding better future citizens and generally demonstrate the shockingly epidemic issue of adults with poor or no problem solving skills themselves either trying to teach kids how to solve things, or failing to confront problems at all. At the same time radical but successful programs dealing with bullies, completely out of the box methods making headway are ignored, lost in the effort to look tough on the issue, to make and send a message out of the people charged in these cases, brought before a judge.
Take Rosalind Wiseman’s, author of Queen Bees and Wannabe’s, contribution to the Dateline special on Phoebe Prince, aside from pointing out a common statement she hears from administrators that when they see bullying they do something about it and that tells her they don’t really understand it due to the fact it’s as much about what you don’t see as what you do, she recommends removing the bully’s social power, escorting them to class, making them eat lunch in the office, forcing them to feel punished due to their actions. This runs counter to what many schools do escorting the bullied person to class, having them eat lunch in the office, in order to keep them safe. While she is on the right track as to possible suitable, measured, offense related punishment for bullying behavior, it is a fine line she’s asking administrators to walk, because in enacting such punishments you do double your chances of the true lesson having the desired effect, yet you also take the chance that the moment the punishment is over, they’ll go after the person who caused it with a vengeance, meaning the bullied person is tormented more and the problem just escalates. On the extreme end, removing social power from a bully, social power that is everything in middle school, high school, may result in a potential school shooting or violence impacting everyone, not just the bully and their targets. Further it does nothing to solve the underlying problem, it does nothing to stop bullying before it starts, even to identify if what is going on really is bullying and not something much bigger, mental instability of individuals, serious psychological problems or misunderstandings with tragic turns. It does nothing to give the kids alternatives to bullying, better ways to express themselves, it gives them absolutely zero resources to deal with whatever problem or confrontation they are going through.
So how do middle schools, high schools, colleges do that; theories abound and likewise do bullying programs. However the most successful ones think outside the box; in Norway weekly discussions are held on friendship and conflict. Combatting bullying is something that’s part of every class, every day administrators down to janitors demonstrating being kind, good to one another, considering others feelings, teaching students to stand up for a person being picked on. Implied and emphasized there but totally missing here is any sort of conflict resolution either for the victims of bullying or the perpetrators; the girls accused of bullying Phoebe Prince got their share of lectures, one receiving a suspension for her behavior, but there was nowhere for these girls who felt wronged by Phoebe to go and have their grievance heard, to find advice on how to handle the complicated mess they were in. Plus had an adult heard the full story of what was transpiring, gotten some history on the misbegotten 15 year old from her family, they might have been able to recognize the markers of possible serious mental illness, sit down and have a frank discussion with the young girl’s mother about her sexual behavior, about the need for extensive mental evaluation and likely need for an alternative school, not only saving her life, stopping the derailment of 6 others, but showing them a person who acts like this probably has serious emotional problems, putting a different perspective on it for all parties. Available conflict resolution would have put Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi into a room, facilitated a conversation where Tyler would have discovered his encounter was not broadcast to the world, there was no viewing party as well as disclosed his reasons for activating the web cam. At which point Tyler learns it’s not about him being gay, the whole world doesn’t know he is, perhaps he can provide information on M.B. to assuage Ravi’s concerns. Also a trained counselor, mediator likewise familiar with school policy would have warned Ravi that using his web cam that way is not only a violation of school policy, but a crime. If there was any sense this was more about Tyler’s internal conflicts dealing with being gay, having emotional problems, he would have been alerted to campus counseling resources, an existing chapter of the gay lesbian, bisexual, transgender alliance, additional places he could find help and support.
Because those cases have far less to do with bullying and more to do with poor communication, mental illness in need of treatment. Similarly suicides by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people is significantly greater than the general population, yet not always because of harassment by peers, present on high school or college campuses. Many times it has to do with people closest to them, friends, family who reject their sexuality, who they believe will reject them for it, a larger societal problem where they feel they have to hide who they are so they don’t get ugly looks kissing a lover in public, they can’t tell their coworkers about their boyfriend or girlfriend for the comments it generates, when said person picks them up from work there are stares and obvious displays of disapproval. But when a college kid kills themselves, and they happen to be a person described by the alternative gender, sexual orientation terms above, we rush to assume they were bullied or it was sparked by one person’s off color comment. Still other individuals grappling with said issues struggle so much because they are gay and don’t want to be, just want to be normal; they are bi and confused as to what this means for their relationships. Transgender people seem to have it the hardest because they spend life from a very early age feeling like they are in the wrong body; people often lump them in with gays and lesbians in calling them freaks, calling their want for sex reassignment surgery an abomination, religious people known to tell them they are going to hell. On top of that, said surgery is a long drawn out and expensive process not usually covered by insurance, meaning a college kid can’t afford it and without supportive affluent parents are doomed to suffer until they can, if they ever do. Then we wonder why they suddenly couldn’t cope, or worse, blame the wrong culprit. Collages in particular need to understand said complexities of what it means to be gay in society today; on one hand there is more acceptance, more rights, no longer do they have to live completely in the closet, but they still encounter scorn, ridicule, judgment and religious doctrine, things not necessarily present on campus rather in the rest of a student’s world.
Where bullying is actually the core of the issue another school took a radical, certainly unorthodox approach to their bullying problem with surprisingly positive results; they began solving bullies problems, whether it was trouble at home, failing a class, being bullied themselves, abuse whatever, virtually eliminating the school’s bullying problem altogether, bringing back at least one student who had fled because of the situation. The success supporting what psychologists have said for years, people who bully have severe problems. That is backed up by a new idea presented on the John Tesh Radio Show, interview your bully; in the interest of gaining closure and understanding the why of torment they went through, people have made an effort to speak with their tormentor about what happened years before. In the example mentioned via the radio segment, while the bullied individual could remember ever insult, the perpetrator didn’t remember any of it; instead he remembered the rough time he was going through as his parents split up and his desperate desire to fit in. Salon.com hosts several other stories along the same lines one man who had been bullied himself before he became a bully, countless shocked their childhood, adolescent antics had caused that amount of worry, pain, was still remembered. Proving these people are not evil, just troubled. Reminding us all of a popular Oprah quote; “you never really know what’s going on behind closed doors.” We never know what is happening in another person’s life; speaking of the talk show host, she had countless celebrity and ordinary guests who were successful in their careers, financially stable had wives or husbands, had the picture perfect American life, had grown up in a picture perfect family, but were being abused by their partners, had been sexually abused as a child, grew up in a home being physically abused or neglected, were harboring secrets about being transgender or their sexual orientation.
How that all correlates with the headline making cases, tough new laws against bullying, schools sweeping zero tolerance policies is, adults still aren’t getting the message; putting more people in jail, giving them records doesn’t make them less likely to repeat the behavior when they get out. Zero tolerance policies rarely hit the target they are aimed at, are more likely to be misapplied, like one kindergarten kid who was suspended under a bullying statute for smacking another student, not because he’s a bully but because he is 5 and still learning not to hit. To say nothing of we have diversionary programs for drugs and alcohol, even violent, repeat teen offenders substituting jail time; more and more programs are being placed inside prisons to keep people from making the same mistakes upon release. Next there is required empathy and sensitivity training for a number of jobs; the question then is, why don’t we have the same kinds of programs in our schools, focus the same kind of time on creating good, people good citizens as they do in places like Norway? Why then when cases like this are brought before the court are they not given probation at most then ordered to a program that includes counseling, anger management, empathy training via testimonials of bullied people talking about how that torment effected them, just like former prisoners talk to kids in troubled youth schools, rounding out with problem solving skills? Further, if drug addicts, alcoholics and teens from bad homes who commit crime are deemed worthy of such programs, shouldn’t bullies with emotional problems be worthy of the same, perhaps more? Short answer yes they should, unfortunately we still believe “values” are things to be taught in the home, nowhere else, the responsibility of the parent exclusively; we believe if the kid fails at this it is the immoral lax way they were raised. Punishment is the solution to correcting behavior, no matter your age and bullying stems from either a lack of character, moral fiber or the fact that we are steadily becoming a nation of wusses minus girt, toughness, depending on your point of view.
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However bullying has little to do with values and a lot more to do with coping skills, problem solving skills, temperament and emotional responses. Instead of changing things for the better we seem to be going in the opposite direction; the new movie Bully, an eye opening documentary on the real lives of targeted teens and tweens was originally given an R rating, due to language. causing young people who wanted, needed to see the movie to have to attend it alongside a parent or other adult. One teen pointing out it drastically changes the experience vs. going as a group of friends, opening the dialog between peers. Eventually the producers put it out as unrated hoping more teens would see it and would learn from it. We are putting into effect laws that make criminals out of teens who are mean to each other, which arguably would encompass everyone sometime during their school career, meanness that stops when the stress, problems at home, abuse whatever stops; meanness that stops when kids mature or are introduced to a different skillset. Something else forgotten is that schools are supposed to be places of learning not just glorified conformity institutions; if South Korea can teach online etiquette to preschoolers, Norway can teach conflict resolution in the classroom so can we. We just have to let go of stereotypical thinking, old thought patterns on what will solve, lessen or eliminate the problem altogether. There is a reason teachers go to school, attend training to be a teacher, there is a reason we send our kids to public, private education, why home schooling tools are available; because, not every parent can teach a child everything they need to know. From a practicality standpoint, neither are parents the ones spending 8 hours a day with the child, in the school setting, encountering the situations with them; it is why teachers, school personnel need to take part of this on, not just parents. Even homeschooled children will eventually be somewhere without their parents and have to handle a conflict situation; it’s why the old adage is it takes a village to raise a child.
Comprehensive bullying prevention and action plans involve not putting teens and college kids behind bars, charging them with a crime, not headline making cases where one person, group or situation becomes the scapegoat for a problem we should have been paying attention to long before now, but rather all the things mentioned up to this point. If schools are going to be more aggressive in acting as defacto parents of students, limiting the foods they can put in their lunch, principals trying to dictate when kids can get a MySpace or Facebook page, even demanding the password from one student, threatening them with the police and a taser, they said in the course of preventing a potential school shooting. If holding them to strict honor codes outside the classroom that can result in the removal of them from advanced placement courses/credit for college, suspension or expulsion for failure to comply is going to be the new norm, then they certainly can put in empathy and sensitivity training tailored to middle and high school problems. They can teach conflict resolution techniques, steps students can use out in the real world not just on school grounds. They can employ counselors, meditators for students to go to when there is a problem. Handling a case of bullying shouldn’t stop when you’ve secured the safety of the victim, punished the perpetrator; that should be the beginning. After, more often than not, in lieu of severe punishments for the bully, counseling/mentoring for them; trying to figure out what is making this person act that way, give them a place to talk about whatever is bothering them, and when you do, help them solve their problem. Not only does this address bullying, it likewise enhances young lives by removing them from abusive homes, providing help to alcoholic, drug addicted parents, getting people out of domestic violence, fulfilling the mandate schools have been trying to achieve, parenting kids who seem to have none, have bad, negative role models. College campuses need the same thing with added tutorials on dorm etiquette, misuse of technology and the law, employing the same counselors, mediators as a resource for students, suicide hotlines, crisis lines and effective information campaigns telling students where resources and help are, properly transitioning them into the adult world things that combined would have drastically altered the fate of Tyler Clementi.
Getting to the heart of the problem means creating a better society, not just the sheltering of schools, college campuses and creating that better society means, you can keep your religious beliefs, but gay people can also keep theirs, their lifestyle. It means letting go and letting God, however you choose to label, define them, deal with what other people do in their bedroom. It means creating a society where the words fagot and queer are not derogatory terms from someone who is supposedly weak, small, lacking emotional stamina, especially if they are male. Getting to the heart of the problem means understanding the why of bullying, what’s really behind it not the stereotyped cause, personalities; relying on what works not typical punishments. Because if we understand bullies are stressed, abused, emotionally unbalanced we get them help, not jail. On the flipside, handling the heart of the problem is teaching people teen, tween adult that people who behave erratically are characterized as jerks, assholes, bitches, do things that don’t make sense to others, similar to Phoebe Prince’s behavior are mentally ill; a perspective that alone may quell bullying. Subduing the heart of the problem means as a society we greatly improve our problem solving skills so we can teach kids, future generations better ways than bullying.
I agree with so much Natasha writes. The thing I struggle with (and have for years) is getting our overall educational system to do what she wants: social competence classes every day. The basis for my work is doing exactly that. What so many educators don’t realize is that this positive school climate philosophy isn’t just slogans and posters, it should be the foundation for how every person understands the social contract of the school. When that happens, of course there will still be conflict but the desperation and anger people feel will much less because they have faith in the system and adults to be fair.
Not only that but when we get the adults to comprehend that punish, punish, punish is NOT the answer, when we get them to see bullying as a symptom not just the beginning of a problem, helping them starts to make sense.
When they understand doing the latter will likely end the bullying issue altogether, when they are on the look out for kids in crisis, kids showing marked signs of mental illness, such as Phoebe Prince, they can stop tragedy before they start.
The sad thing is, the ABC news clip of a school with such a “radical” approach to bullying that helped everyone, including the bullies aired in 2009; in 2010, 2011 were the rash of suicides, Bully the movie was being put together and is, of course, out now.
Why does it take so long to get the right things done